You do not nibble at a torta ahogada. You go to battle with it.
A symbolic dish of Guadalajara, the "drunken sandwich" is a monster of sorts — one mightier than the torta Cubano or even the Mexico City-style pambazo. It's a mammoth creature of meat, bread, and sauce that will leave its mark on your hands, your face, and most likely your shirt.
You will be given a knife and fork. But know the cutlery is for picking up the remains left in the shallow, onion-shaped bowl the torta ahogada arrives — and is barely contained — in. To use them otherwise would be to stand out as a true gabacho among the émigrés of Guadalajara's state of Jalisco. You will need to attack this Mexican sandwich with your bare hands. And hope for the best.
Laura Hahnefeld cafe column
Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara
518 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Torta ahogada: $4.59
Taco dorado: $0.99
Tapato burrito: $4.99
Carne en su jugo: $6.99
Its creation starts with a crusty oblong roll that has been split, smeared with dense beans, and stuffed with carnitas, chunks of roasted pork with crispy edges. Thin tomato sauce is then liberally poured over the top, intensified by your desired level of hot sauce, until the sandwich sits in a pool of it, like an oversize bullfrog with its mouth agape. Adding a sprinkle of pickled onions or a squirt of lime is optional but highly recommended.
To consume it, you must fall upon it. Clutch it confidently in both hands, lean in, and pull it toward you while it drips and spills and stains. Its bites of juice-soaked (yet still-sturdy) bread, meat, and beans bring forth a pork-y, spicy, and tomato-y flavor. Best to relish it quickly before the beast buckles and falls in defeat.
The torta ahogada is not for everyone. But for those up to the challenge, you can find a very good one at Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara. A bustling little eatery inside the Mercado Plaza del Sol in Chandler, this food stand serves authentic Mexican street food and Guadalajaran specialties, quick-service style. Not every dish is as good as its namesake, but there's enough tasty and affordable eats here to make this adventure into a mini-community of Mexican culture worth the trip.
With the exception of the street tacos, the portion sizes of the dishes at Tortas Ahogadas are intended for the very hungry — or those with a friend (or two) in tow. And given that each of the items is fewer than eight bucks, filling up affordably isn't a question of how, but of when.
Of the tortas, the ahogada is the clear standout. When it comes to the others, there are better offerings to be found in the Valley (Tortas El Güero, Tortas Paquime, and Los Reyes de la Torta come to mind). Best to move into burrito territory, where giant flour tortillas packed with fillings are wrapped in paper, sliced in two, and served not on plates, but platters — the only dishes able to hold them.
If you like your chile verde burrito porky — very porky — Tortas Ahogadas' version, stuffed with slow-cooked, tender pork along with beans and a tangy and mildly spicy green chile sauce, is a real pleaser and a steal at under five bucks. The Tapatío Burrito goes more the way of a guilty pleasure but is no less flavorful. Loaded with a choice of meat (go with the carne asada), potatoes, avocado, Mexican cream, a bright pico de gallo, and a surprising addition of gooey cheddar cheese, it's a tasty indulgence and a signature dish of the eatery.
"In Mexico, we have to use Mexican cheeses," manager Sergio Felix tells me. "But in America, we want what's different. And the cheddar cheese is what our customers have asked for."
The double-wrapped street tacos may be the least interesting of the offerings. Aside from a too-dry chicken and marinated pork, or al pastor, most of the other fillings — lightly seasoned carne asada, tender carnitas, moist buche (pork stomach), and chewy lengua (beef tongue) — are perfectly acceptable. But they are not as unique, or distinctly Guadalajaran, as the 99-cent taco dorado, or fried taco, a favorite among the regulars.
Starting as a standard fried taco filled with your choice of potatoes, beans, or ground beef, Tortas Ahogadas takes it a step further and splits it in two, adds toppings of lettuce, onions, and queso fresco, and provides a cupful of the same thin tomato sauce used on the torta ahogada for boldly dousing the pieces at will. The taste is something akin to a Mexican street eat by way of Italy.
And if you like the sauce poured atop the taco dorado, you can have it over two of the especialidades de Guadalajara — hearty meals that arrive with handmade tortillas for sopping or making tacos of your own. Like the foods of the city's state of Jalisco, they are more mildly seasoned than spicy. There is a chile relleno, in which the tomato sauce is poured over a large, roasted poblano pepper stuffed with melted cheese, coated in an airy and eggy batter, and fried. And enchiladas tapatías, featuring cheese-filled rolled tortillas, wet with the tangy and sweet sauce alongside a grilled chicken breast and potato wedges. The fact that the sauce pools under the accompanying sides of rice and tasty, dense beans, giving them additional flavor, is a bonus.
Sadly, the bírria, goat meat cooked in a seasoned broth and one of Guadalajara's most distinctive dishes, is the most disappointing of the specials, given its dry meat and weak flavor. But then there is the carne en su jugo. Seldom seen on menus outside Mexico, this workhorse of a soup comes packed with chopped beef, crispy bacon, potatoes, and beans in a thin yet robust broth. Surprisingly simple yet yielding a different mix of flavors and textures in each jumbo spoonful, it's an all-inclusive meal you can enjoy until you're full — and then take home the rest for lunch the next day.
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Fans of offal won't want to miss another famous dish of the city: tostadas de pata, or pigs' feet tostadas. No diced meat here, this trotter is kept intact, the pink rubbery foot nesting in a bed of lettuce splashed with sauce and (barely) between two fried tortillas. The best way to eat it is to cut off what you can with fork and knife and then pick up what's left with your hands, gnawing and sucking it clean. Suffice it to say, this one's not for the timid.
As the only eatery (save for a snack shop) inside the Mercado Plaza del Sol, Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara acts as the heart of this lively shopping center. Alive with activity, it's surrounded by brightly painted storefronts — a tienda de ropa, salón de belleza, and herberia — with enormous, brightly colored piñatas hanging over the central eating area. Here, at clusters of tables and chairs positioned around a condiment bar, its hungry patrons gather and await a harried but friendly server to bring them sustenance, Guadalajaran-style.
The energy behind the eatery's counter matches the dining area. Past a case of carnitas and tasty peeled, roasted, and salt-sprinkled peppers that come with most of the dishes, and a refrigerator stocked with Mexican Coke, Penafiel sodas, and fruit-flavored Boing, the small, open kitchen is a well-organized hive of hustle and bustle. Tortillas are made in the front, rice is mixed with seasoning in giant, steel bowls off to the side, and in the back, meat is chopped and fired on the grill.
It seems a rather unpretentious home for the king of Mexican sandwiches. But when you've got this kind of street food cred, royal monikers hardly seem appropriate.