Cafe Reviews

¡Tortas Gigantes!

I have been to the mountaintop, and, yes, I've eaten it, because that's just the kind of guy I am.

The edible pinnacle of which I speak is as formidable as Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano, and while devouring it, I felt like the food-critic equivalent of some intrepid mountaineer determined to conquer Popo's peak. Gladly, this challenge did not require breaking a sweat. I had only to ingest the signature "La Presa" torta at the sandwich shop Tortas La Presa on North Seventh Street, just south of East Hatcher Road.

Surely my achievement is worthy of praise. Tortas are the Mexican equivalent of deli sammies, save that their innards are fried and then placed in a large, soft Mexican bun known as a telera, itself often grilled in butter. Ingredients vary wildly, but the colossal La Presa torta is like a Hispanic Dagwood, piled high with fried egg, mozzarella, chorizo, breaded strips of beef (called Milanesa), sliced hot dog and at least half a dozen other items, including avocado and onions. It's the Godzilla of the sandwich kingdom, a ginormous monstrosity that blows away all the pussyfoot panini in town. After downing it, I'm so lightheaded from the carbs and protein, I want to curl up in the fetal position on the floor for a three-hour nap.

The bustling, two-room Tortas La Presa has been around for three years now, and it's frequented by a loyal, mostly Spanish-speaking crowd that comes for the 20 different types of tortas, as well as the juice bar on site which creates freshly squeezed aguas frescas, everything from pineapple and mango to papaya and watermelon, all in glasses of finely crushed ice, with sugar and water. TLP also makes these pulpy nine-fruit libations called bombas, and for dessert, big plastic cups of fresas con crema, strawberries with cream and pecans.

It's a curiously Mexican phenomenon, a juice bar across from a short-order grill producing such artery-clogging titans as the La Presa. But for whatever reason, there's something about drinking a refreshing lemon-lime agua fresca with this stack of meat on a roll that balances out the latter's greasiness, or at least lessens your guilt in eating it.

According to Enrique De La Torre, 34, the thin, good-looking fellow who owns this thriving establishment along with his brother Eloy, 29, they both grew up eating tortas like these in the small town of La Presa, five minutes outside Mexico City. And with their tortas, they would always have aguas frescas. De La Torre emigrated in 1989, and before opening the tortas place, he worked as an optician. (There's also a Tortas La Presa near 45th Avenue and Glendale, but under a different ownership.) Recently, the brothers started another restaurant at 43rd Avenue and Indian School Road, named La Presa Restaurant. De La Torre explains it's mostly a mariscos joint, with tortas, too, but no juice. I'll have to check it out as soon as I get a chance.

If it's anything like Tortas La Presa, it must be quite a scene. Here, the parking lot TLP shares with a handful of other businesses is often jammed with cars. Inside on the TV it's either soccer, American football or a Spanish talk show. If the TVs are off, it's a variety of Mexican tunes blaring, while a small army of young Spanish ladies in blue Tortas La Presa tees buzzes about, taking orders. Usually, there are some waitresses present whose English is better than the rest, but be advised that a phrase or two of Spanish goes a long way. Still, the service is generally friendly and snappy.

Other than a soccer jersey here or a trophy there, it's mostly plain yellow tables and low, leather-backed chairs with a large, open grill on one side, and the juice bar on the other. I don't pay attention to the TV set when I'm there. I'd rather observe the juice bar tenders preparing my agua fresca, the cooks ladling oil or butter onto the grill, or the families with toddlers in cowboy hats, overalls and little boots.

But of course, I don't go there for the people-watching, but for the tortas, which are accompanied by a spicy orange condiment of tomatillo, onion, garlic, and chile de arbol. A li'l dab'll do ya with this salsa. I ascribe magical properties to it, because it always causes my torta to vanish.

The bread Tortas La Presa uses is significant. These telera rolls have three ridges across their tops, are brown on the outside, soft and white on the inside, yet just firm enough to hold all that meat. De La Torre orders them fresh every day from Glendale's La Purisima Bakery, and the bakery deserves some credit, because you can't make a great sandwich without great bread.

Historians trace such bread back to the French intervention in Mexico, culminating in the very brief Hapsburg rule of that country under Maximilian I from 1864 to 1867. The Mexicans eventually executed this interloping emperor, hand-picked by France's Napoleon III. But they wisely retained the French-styled breads, like the telera and the crustier bolillo. Both can be used for tortas, but TLP uses the telera exclusively.

A whole page of tortas grace TLP's menu, and though I haven't tried them all, neither have I had a bad one yet. Other than the stupendous La Presa, which might cause you to dislocate your jaw trying to get your mouth around its middle, I'm fond of the slightly less thick Melchori, Hawaiian and Cuban tortas. The Cuban is really not like a Cubano you'll eat in Miami, but who cares? Its combo of roast pork, sliced ham, mozzarella, tomato, and jalapeño strips is still tasty and spicy. So is that of the Melchori, with its fried beef, chorizo, ham, jalapeños, and so on. Pineapple rings make the Hawaiian, the fruit snug between warm layers of ham, pork, and big, melted hunks of queso fresco (a fresh, white cheese) topped with a tangy Russian dressing.

The tortas are usually served with potato chips. But some, like the Ranchera, come with a simple salad of lettuce, grilled onion, radishes, and cucumber. The Ranchera is more a straightforward steak sammy, albeit one with a spicy green salsa and avocado. I haven't checked, but I fear I may have gained another 10 pounds working on this torta story alone! (Sigh.) Seems the La Presa torta could be both the first and the last mountain I'm ever able to climb.