10 Top Tortas in Mexico City
The torta, Mexico’s ubiquitous sandwich, is the quintessential fusion dish. It's fast food with European roots, made truly Mexican. The world may think of the taco as the country’s number one street food, but it’s the torta, especially within the confines of the bustling cities of Mexico D.F., Puebla, Monterrey and Guadalajara, that has captured hearts, souls and taste buds of millions.
David Lida, author of First Stop in the New World, a portrait of Mexico City’s dark side, and aficionado, reflects that: “If a torta isn't precisely a work of art, it is by all means a handicraft. To call it Mexico's answer to the sandwich is misleading: all those layers of refried beans, tomatoes, chilies, onions and avocado, in addition to the meat and the cheese, render a sandwich without meaning, irrelevant.”
According to one likely apocryphal legend, the torta was “invented” at the turn of the 20th century by one Sr. Armando, an Italian immigrant in Mexico City, as his riff on the Italian panino. He adapted this already coopted French treat to available ingredients, and to locals’ penchant for avocado and chile.
His family restaurant still exists, although its product has become insipid – perhaps Don Armando took his recipes with him to the grave. But now a solid torta can be found at myriad street stalls and small restaurants throughout the city and beyond. They vary from cheap, factory made, junk-filled belly fillers, the sort given for free on Primera Plus bus rides, to sublimely artisanal chef-concocted gourmet creations.
Tortas are prepared by a specialist called a tortero. Starting with a soft roll known as a bolillo (or in Puebla, where, arguably, the torta had its origins, a telera), a wide range of ingredients are used as fillings. Popular choices are milanesa (pounded and fried beef or chicken), pierna (oven roasted pork leg), choriqueso (cheese and sausage), and roasted turkey. The ever-popular torta cubana is filled with just about everything. The variety is endless.
The construction of a torta is where the artistry comes in. An unctuous dab of refried beans is laid on in lieu of butter or mayonnaise to grease the works, the star ingredient is then applied, and the all-important garnishes are piled on. These can include tomato, onion, avocado, lettuce and jalapeño or smoky chile chipotle en adobo. The whole shebang is then place on a hot grill, pressed slightly with a spatula to meld the flavors a bit, then flipped over to lightly toast the other side of the bread, adding a slight crunch to the outside.
Variations abound. Pambazos, found in the capital and surrounding areas, are filled with chorizo and potato, or shredded chicken, then dunked in salsa and fried--they’re often a bit on the heavy/greasy side. Even weightier are tortas made of tamales, known as guajalotes, a specialty of D.F. as well--a lily gilded if ever there was one.
While most typically defeño (i.e. of the capital city), poblano (from Puebla), or tapatio (from Jalisco where Guadalajara is located), tortas are found all over the country, and regional variations abound.
The Slow Food/local/artisanal movement has not overlooked this beloved culinary phenomenon. Trained chef establishments have begun offering 21st century versions of traditional tortas, with fancy ingredients and higher prices. But however you slice it, the torta remains one of the most popular and comforting of Mexican foods.
1. A beloved institution in Colonia Del Valle, Tortas Don Polo offers great tortas de pavo or pierna (turkey or pork) accompanied by licuados, Mexico’s version of milk shakes, made with fresh tropical fruits. There is counter as well as table and take-out service. Go here for the real thing as it should be done.
Tortas Don Polo
Felix Cuevas 86 (near Av. Coyoacán) Colonia Del Valle
Open daily 7 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.
2.Bravo Lonchería, though clad in 21st century hipster chic, is really an update of the classic all but vanished urban tortería of the mid-century 20th. A changing menu offers traditional tortas with a modern twist. Each seeming classic includes at least one “surprise” ingredient: the rabo de res (oxtail) for example, is padded with sweet potato – brilliant!. Sandwiches are served on house-made bolillos. They're accompanied by a changing selection of amuse-bouche soups, as well as crunchy chips. Ambient music is in the retro latin groove albeit a tad too loud for intimate conversation. This are is a standout addition to the quick lunch scene especially in this formerly culinarily bleak Colonia. Bravo!
Río Sena 87, Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Open Monday - Friday 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Saturday, Sunday until 5
3. Tortas de chilaquiles are unheard of anywhere but in Mexico City whose resident ‘chilangos’ are ever creative, gastronomy-wise. These delicious carb-bombs are made up of yesterday’s tortillas re-fried in spiky green sauce, stuffed into a bolillo and, as if that weren’t enough, drizzled with sour cream. The locally famous makeshift stand sets up weekday mornings at the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas in the Condesa and usually runs out by 11 a.m.
4. In the Guadalajara area, the star of the show is the exquisite torta ahogada (drowned sandwich). It sounds simple: a crusty roll, here called a birote, is filled with succulent carnitas (pork cooked in its own fat), then bathed in a rich, piquant sauce of tomato and chile de arbol. First timers look quizzically at the floating sandwich, wondering whether to eat it with a fork and knife, spoon, or their hands. Then the waiter offers a plastic glove, answering the question. Those who choose to be polite and eat with a fork and knife will miss out on the essential tactile experience of chomping down on the dripping mess, juices happily blending into a fragrant meaty pleasure that beats the best American burger. El Pialadero specializes in all things Tapatio.
El Pialadero de Guadalajara
Hamburgo 332, Zona Rosa
Tel. 5211- 7708
Open daily from 9 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.
5. In the city and state of Puebla, south east of Mexico City, tortas are called cemitas. The roll is larger, a bit spongy and lightly sweet. At Mexico City’s best poblano venue, Angelopolitano, cemitas are served on their eponymous and very fresh buns, dotted with sesame seeds. That of mole verde is the best I have sampled anywhere. Chicken bathed in this nut and green chili based sauce is blanketed with shredded Oaxaca cheese and avocado. A hint of the perfumy cilantro-like herb pápalo can be detected.
Puebla 371, near the corner of Sonora, Colonia Roma Norte
Tel. 6391-2121 / 6391-2020
Open Tuesday – Thursday 1 – 10 p.m.Friday, Saturday 1 – 11 p.m., Sunday until 7 p.m., closed Monday
6. Every day is Thanksgiving at La Casa del Pavo, the ancient house of turkey, which opened its doors at this spot in 1901. The décor, most of the personnel and, of course, the menu remain little changed since the last remodelization, which, from the look of things, took place sometime shortly after the revolution. Turkey tortas are moistened with a generous shmeer of mild guacamole and accompanied by some of the best verduras en escabeche to be found anywhere.
La Casa del Pavo
Motolinia 40A, between Madero y 16 de Septiembre, Centro
Open daily 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.
7. Considering its age, which is 75 this year, La Torta Brava should certainly know how to do tortas right. It was recommended to me by the late Josefina Howard, founder of Rosa Mexicano, New York’s first high class Mexican restaurant. Josefina was gracious to sit down with me, back in 1987 and make a list of her favorite D.F. spots, many of which I cherish to this day. This was at a time when guides to eating here were non-existent; perhaps a seed was planted in my brain then to write the first one. I do remember that I had never heard of tortas and that she insisted I try one. I’ve been a fan ever since.
La Torta Brava
5 de Mayo 63 (3 doors from the Zócalo), Centro
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
8. Tortas Poblanas is a tiny storefront that serves simple tortas of freshly baked pierna (roast pork) or pavo (turkey). It’s just around the bend from the renowned Taquería El Huequito.
Ayuntamiento 25, (near Mercado San Juan) Centro
Open daily until 6
9. La Barraca Valenciana This modest tortería with a Spanish/Argentine twist serves some unusual vegetarian choices of mushroom or eggplant tortas, as well as the house special, chopped calamar, dressed with chimchurri, the typical Argentine parsley, garlic and olive oil sauce.
La Barraca Valenciana
Centenario 91, 2 blocks up from the main plaza, Coyoacán; there’s a branch in Mercado Roma
10. Tortas Been is a stand located inside a strange pasaje features stalls selling middle eastern foods and folkloric costumes. Quien sabe.... The torta stand smack in the middle has great tortas of pavo and pierna. Here, you pay first, then order.
Inside the pasaje at República del Salvador 152, a few blocks southeast of the Zócalo
The southern part of the city doesn't house many 'high end' establishments I find recommendable. An exception is Sud 777. Chef Edgar Nuñez' pretty venue features his creative cooking based on but not faithful to, Mexican and Spanish traditions. Blvd. de la Luz 777, Alvaro Obregon, Jardines del Pedregal. Tel. 5568 4777
Páprika (Marsella 61, Colonia Juarez) is chef and provocateur Josefina Santacruz' new venue for tastes from North Africa and beyond. DIshes are small and wallet-friendly, meant to be shared.
Warung Makan, Mexico City's first and only Indonesian restaurant offers a reasonable comida in Roma Nte.: Puebla 341 between Cozumel & Guadalajar; Open Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.
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