Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tortas - The Mexican Quintessential Sandwich

Torta al Pastor
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011 All Rights Reserved
In Mexican gastronomy, a torta is a kind of grilled sandwich.  It is usually prepared with a telera roll, although depending on the region of the country, it is also prepared with other types of bread such as a bolillo, birote, micha, pambazo, etc.  The bread is split in half and filled with a kaleidescope of fillings that are limitless, then further grilled to a crunchy perfectness.  

It is a culinary "antojito", prepared street side on gourmet food carts or in establishments called "torterias".  Although for a Mexican, the torta is considered a street snack, don't confuse this with fast food.  It is far from that.  Epicureans consider it a gourmet feast as the ingredients are all fresh, grilled, and include all the exotic ingredients you can imagine. 

Like all mexican food, the torta has a unique history well described by "Tortologo" Roberto Ayala in his book: "El Gran Libro de las Tortas".   According to his findings, there is an account that dates back to the sixteenth century:

Leonardo Da Vinci
It happened one day that Leonardo Da Vinci wanted to surprise his guest and protector Ludovico Sforza with something to eat, but he did not have much to offer.  He improvised a quick delightful snack that consisted of placing a piece of bread between two hard pieces of meat as hard as cobblestones and covering the entire dish between two larger pieces of bread.   This could be considered the initial stages  of the torta, placing Leonardo Da Vinci in the culinary history books as its inventor. 

From then on people began placing ingredients between two pieces of bread to conceal what was inside, especially if the ingredients were not very impressive.  Eventually, the torta or sandwich has been prepared in some variation in many parts of the world.

Leonardo Da Vinci may have had the ingenious idea of putting a piece of meat between two buns, but who reinvented the torta and turned it into a popular and exotic dish were the Mexicans.  The torta is so important for Mexicans that an annual festival is organized in the esplanade of the delegation of Venustiano Carranza in Mexico City.  

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in search of riches, they brought with them wheat, a Spanish staple and religious necessity, the only grain recognized by the Catholic church as being suitable for the Euacharist wafer.  One important way of colonizing and christianizing the natives, was to replace the native grains such as amaranth with wheat.  

Bread production began in Mexico with the new grain, but it wasn't until the arrival of the french colonizers in Puebla in the 1800's, that Mexican bakers soon developed a baking tradition unique in its own way, making it one of the most inventive in the world.  

From the Mexican and French marriage in Puebla, the telera was born.  It is highly prized for its flavor and crusty golden outer shell with which the tortas are made.  Even though Puebla may take the credit for introducing the torta,  it is Mexico City whom is the superstar for being the most inventive in making the most impressive tortas.  

Not only are the ingredients with which the tortas are filled raised to a higher level of cuisine, but their names are also the most ingenious reflecting the culture of Mexico and their love of humor.  

There are an endless array of tortas, but some are more famous than others.  The creativity of the Mexican does not have borders but it does contain a lot of humor:

"La Chancla" (flip flop), consists of shredded chicken cooked in "guajillo"  chiles and spices.  The telera roll is stuffed with the chicken filling and avocado slices.  Then it is topped with guajillo salsa.

"La Ahogada" which translates to the "drowned one", was invented in Guadalajara, Jalisco.  The torta is called that because it is submerged in a "chile de arbol" salsa.  A hard and crunchy birote roll, characteristic of the region, is filled with fried pork, then submerged in the spicy red liquid.  The consistency of the bread permits the torta to be submerged without crumbling or dissolving. 

"La Guajolota" the name given to a torta that consists of a telera roll stuffed with a tamal. (literally it translates to a large turkey hen).

"El Chavo" (the kid), a torta that is a favorite among children, but also made famous by the Mexican television farcical sitcom.  It consists of a telera or bolillo roll, ham, and avocado slices.   

"La Hawaiiana",  called that because it is filled with grilled pineapple and ham, then topped with asadero cheese.

"Lambada", aptly named after the famous brazilian dance craze.  It consists of grilled meat, chorizo, and asadero cheese.

"La Cubana", no translation needed, just about every ingredient you can name stuffed into the bread.  

Then there are the tortas named after certain places even though, they are all Mexican: "Michoacana, Española, Rusa, Alemana, Suiza, La China, etc"

But it does not stop there, in the "torterias", you will find yourself amused at all the humorous names: "La Gringa (the name given to a foreigner of English descent), Mariachi, La Tejana, La Negra, La Mora, La India, La Tortuga, Francis, La Torta Loca, La Macha, la Pobre, Cantinflas, Pachuqueña, La Arabe, La Milanesa, Al Pastor, La Capulina, La Barbi, etc..."

All tortas are usually served with lettuce and tomato, queso fresco, avocados, onions, fiery hot salsas, pickled jalapeños, and even crema.  But when you visit a torteria, no dictionary is needed, just bring a huge appetite. 

Para Español


  1. Quien hubiera dicho que el gran maestro Leonardo Da Vinci pudo haber tenido mano en la famosa torta mexicana? Que orgullo es nuestro México.

  2. Wow! I didn't know Leonardo Da Vinci could have been the inventor of the delicious torta. Great story!

  3. Leonardo da Vinci wrote in a journal that is still in existence, and he might have had such a meal with his protector. But he was not a cook, that is a given. But the way the tortas are taken to a gourmet level in Mexico is amazing, some vegetarian renditions offer squash blossoms and mushrooms!!

  4. I live in El Paso, and the tortas at Don Chema are so good. It's a weekly ritual for me. I usually order the milanesa torta. I love your blog and I'm your fan!

    Marie de la Fuente

  5. Leticia:

    La historia de Leonardo es casi igual a la de el Earl of Sandwich. Que bien escribes!!! A eso te dedicas? Oye que antojada, no se vale!!! Aca no encuentras una buena torta (hablando de gastromnia! jajajaja). Sabes en que se parecen las tortas de tamal a las torres gemelas? Conoces el mural que llamaron "Vamos a las tortas"?


    Gonzalo Martinez-Negrete
    (Cantatres Bohemian Club)

  6. Marie, thank you very much for your kind words and for becoming a fan.

  7. Gonzalo, gracias por tu comentario. Es lamentable que donde vives no encuentras las ricas tortas. Tendrás que visitar México... Y me quedo con la tarea de las torres gemelas...

  8. LA respuesta es: Se ocupan dos Boing pa' bajarlas!!!

  9. The torta ahogada is my favorite. "El Guerito" from Guadalajara is one place I always visit. Check them out at Francisco I Madero #13, Guadalajara, Jalisco. This place has been there over 75 years and "El Abuelo" still makes and serves them.

  10. I remember my many visits to Mexico and the lovely tortas I shared with friends. I so enjoy your blog.

  11. Indeed tortas from "El Guerito" are a tradition in Guadalajara. In el abuelo's (grandfather's) words, he comments: "Aqui sigo enchilando gente con mis tortas bien ahogadas", (I'm still here spicing up people with my well drowned tortas). Thank you for reading.

  12. Platanos & Mangos, there is a torta called "la macha", which consists of plantain fried crispy in the style of "tostones", black beans, grilled chicken, crema mexicana and avocado slices. Thank you for your kind comment.

  13. Leticia, I very much enjoyed your Treatise on the Torta and will be reading much more about this in the days to come. I see lots of variations on this theme.

  14. Thanks so much for posting this, Leticia. I'm citing it in my restaurant review paper for an English class since I wanted to include some history on the torta. :)