Meet Mexico’s Culinary Underdog
(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1167.)
Ask your recently-arrived foreign friends to mention the Mexican foods they are looking forward to trying while they visit Puerto Vallarta. Chances are they will mention—in no particular order—tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and guacamole. Some might even volunteer burritos, which are more Tex-Mex than Mexican, as a matter of fact. But standing anxiously at the tail end of the culinary row call is the omnipresent, yet oft-overlooked torta.
Tortas are everywhere, and this is a problem. The word itself is considered to be a Spanish word with Latin roots—torta in Latin means ‘pie’ but is also used in other languages, including Italian, Albanian, Maltese, Croatian, Portuguese and so forth, with a broad variety of culinary meanings. In Spain and several Latin American countries, the word is used for sweet cakes, whereas in the Philippines it is more of an omelet (tortang).
In Mexico, a torta bears structural similarity to that of a sandwich, in that both are foods placed between two pieces of bread that serve as a container, but you will definitely ruffle some local feathers if you refer to a torta as a sandwich, as this is where the similarity ends. Tortas are prepared using a bolillo, a savory bread that is a variation of the French baguette, but shorter in length. There are several regional versions of this bread throughout Mexico. For example, a telera is similar to the bolillo, but it is usually softer, has a rounder shape, and is divided into three sections on top. In Jalisco, it is called birote, and is usually crunchier, as tortas in our state are traditionally served on a broth (see below).
To prepare a torta, the bread is sliced in half and frequently part of the inside is removed (the white part) to make room for ingredients. Once hollowed, the bread halves are first covered with a variety of dressings, which include mayonnaise, sour cream, refried beans and avocado, just as you would spread mayo and mustard in a sandwich. Once this is done, it is the actual fillings that give a torta its flavor, personality and versatility: sliced ham, shredded chicken, beef, cheese, pork roast are just some of the options.
A Torta Toluqueña, Step-by-Step
Please click on the images for a larger, tastier view.
Tortas are the perfect convenience food. They can be enjoyed all day long, warm, cold or room temperature. The bread can be used as-is, or it can be grilled or toasted in a press. Its crust is thick enough to contain sauces and meat juices without spilling or disintegrating, so they can be prepared or purchased ahead of time, wrapped in a paper bag and saved for the ideal time to enjoy, even if it is hours later—try that with a hamburger! And since they can be hand-carried, they are often sold at concerts, parades and other massive events.
But historically, this convenience has also contributed to the torta’s bad rep. Since bolillos are usually prepared with baking soda instead of yeast, they have been considered an inferior form of bread through times, as evidenced by this popular Spanish aphorism:
A falta de pan buenas son tortas.
Where there is no bread, tortas will do.
Or even worse, the Mexican variation:
A falta de pan, tortillas.
Where there is no bread, tortillas will do.
Poor torta! Now, step into any gourmet restaurant in town and chances are you will find some sort of fancy taco in their appetizer or entrée choices. A torta? Forget about it!
Since all the ingredients required to put together a great torta can be found at a local supermarket, tortas can easily be prepared and enjoyed at home. However, neophyte foodies want to look for a dedicated place. Just as you go to a taquería to enjoy tacos, the place to go is a tortería, or a street vendor. Once you are there, the choices can vary, but here are some of the most common tortas you can find throughout Mexico:
Torta de Jamon—a very basic torta, with sliced ham as the main ingredient.
Torta Toluqueña—named after the city of Toluca, its main ingredient is chorizo, or Mexican sausage.
Torta Cubana—or Cuban, it features all available ingredients.
Torta de Cochinita Pibil—quite common in Southern Mexico, think about them as Mexican Sloppy Joe!
Torta de Tamal—an odd bird common in Central Mexico, the bread is stuffed with either a pork or a chicken tamale.
Lonche—another oddity! In Northern Mexico, tortas are sometimes called ‘lonche’ influenced by the English word ‘lunch,’ as they are perfect for lunch break, although lonche is also used as a more generic term for lunchtime.
Tortas Ahogadas, Our Local Variation
Guadalajara, our state capital, is famous for its tortas ahogadas, or drowned tortas, in which the torta is smothered in a red sauce and served on a deep plate. This is the only torta you wouldn’t want to try holding with your hands as you eat it! In Puerto Vallarta, it is more common to come across a torta ahogada stand than any of the other dry versions popular in the rest of the country, unfortunately. That said, if you wish to experience a good Mexico City-style torta, a great option is to visit Tortas Gigantes El Caballo de Villa (on Francisco Villa 473 in Versalles), where many of the variations mentioned above are prepared, sold and packaged for the perfect picnic or road trip.
The Spanish phrase se comió la torta antes del recreo (in English, he/she ate the torta before school recess) is usually used to refer to someone that had sex before getting married, or even worse, got pregnant in the process. The phrase se quedó como el perro de las dos tortas (in English, he/she ended up like the dog with the two loaves of bread) makes reference to Phaedrus’ fable, in which a dog steals a loaf of bread from a baker and runs as fast as it can. While crossing a bridge, he sees his own reflection in the passing river. Thinking it is another dog trying to take his bread away, he attempts to bite, losing his prized possession.
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