When it comes to making a great sandwich, served on fresh bread and piled high with ingredients, the United States (famous for its subs, muffaletas and Philly cheese steaks) has got absolutely nothing on Mexico. Mexican tortas -- sometimes made on a bolillo (a torpedo-shaped variation on the crusty French baguette) but most often made with pan telera (a flatter, softer, rounder-shaped roll with two indentations on the top) can be filled and garnished with just about anything: a variety of meats, cheese (often mozzarella or panela), refried beans, avocado, pickled jalapeño, onion, tomato, cilantro, lettuce and more.
So who makes a good torta in this town? Here are nine of our favorites.
Torta Ahogada and Torta Paquime at Tortas Paquime
With four Phoenix-area locations, Tortas Paquime is a solid and super-convenient go-to for a quick Mexican food meal, offering tacos, burritos, freshly baked breads, postres, ice cream, raspados, paletas, aguas frescas, and antojitos most gringos have never laid eyes on before. Obviously, the specialty is tortas, most of them made on house-baked telera. One delicious exception is the Torta Ahogada, a specialty of Jalisco given its name (ahogada means "drowned") because the sandwich is submerged in a housemade chile and tomato-based sauce that customers may ask for mild, medium, or hot. A sturdy, split bolillo is stuffed with thickly sliced pork, avocado and a smear of refried beans, drowned in rich sauce and drizzled with crema ($5.99). Also awesome, the namesake Torta Paquime, which may be ordered hot or cold (go cold), filled with pork sirloin, avocado, tomato, jalapeños, mayo and mustard. It's a simple, beautiful thing, and for five bucks, you'd be hard-pressed to do better.
Naco Torta Gallo Blanco
Doug Robson may be a self-proclaimed Gallo Blanco, but the man makes outstanding Mexican food, and nowhere is that more evident than the Naco, Gallo's signature torta which, ironically, means something like "ignorant and low-class" or, as Robson puts it, "redneck." Served open-faced on fluffy, faintly sweet telera baked by La Sonorense , it's a heady mix of juicy, ultra-flavorful rib eye (think carne asada, blackened from the grill and chopped fine), charred tomato salsa, fresh avocado and two over-easy eggs, their yolks oozing from the sandwich with every bite ($10). If there's a better torta than this one, I've yet to find it. Quality ingredients make a huge, huge difference. By the way, if the richness makes a whole torta too much, half tortas are available.
Torta de Filetito at Barrio Cafe
Leave it to Silvana Salcido Esparza to turn the humble torta into something haute, offering up what is basically a steak sandwich with Mexican ingredients and Silvana attitude. Served on a giant, crusty split roll that's been toasted on the grill, the Filetito is a charred and tender, medium-rare filet mignon, smoothed with tangy, wine-laced chipotle sauce and topped with crumbles of chorizo and blue cheese ($16). The combo is outstanding, but unless you have the incisors of a pit bull, you'll need the steak knife that's provided. And what does it come with? Steak fries, of course.
Colitas de Pavo at Tortas El Guero
Gustavo Lom and his family have been turning out great tortas for nine years now, and everyone has his or her own favorite -- the carne asada, the cochinita, the al pastor. But the one I favor -- and the one Gus' wife Marjorie tells me gringos are least likely to order (more's the pity) -- is Colitas de Pavo (a.k.a. turkey tail or turkey butt), a specialty of Northern Chihuahua, the area from which Gus and family hail. Braised first and then lightly fried, the chopped turkey meat is greasy, fatty and utterly delicious with accompaniments of avocado, jalapeño, tomato, lettuce, mayo and mustard ($6.99). A neatly kept salsa bar provides four ways to doctor it up even further, but honestly, it's absolutely perfect as is.
Tocino con Rajas at Otro Cafe
Yes, Robson has already been mentioned in this roundup, but, hey, Otro really is otro, offering up its own unique menu even though there's a bit of crossover here and there. The torta you will love at Otro, and won't be able to get at Gallo is the Tocino con Rajas, a Mexican variation on the BLT served open-faced on the same great telera bread but this time, topped with crisp, thickly sliced bacon, tomato, lettuce, avocado, and escabeche (a condiment of pickled jalapeños). So simple but so sublime ($9).
The El Rey at Tortas El Rey
Clean, friendly and strictly utilitarian Tortas El Rey offers something like 20 varieties of tortas -- some blessedly simple, others impossibly florid. Although standards such as the Milanesa, the Mexicana and the Hawaiiana are done well here, the bad boy you really don't want to miss is the El Rey, a meat-heavy, falling-over stack of deliciousness composed of ham, melted mozzarella, pierna (sliced pork sirloin), milanese (breaded beef cutlet strips), sliced hot dog, egg omelet, refried beans, tomato, onion, avocado, escabeche, lettuce and maybe the kitchen sink ($7.99) Served with the usual ruffled chips, it's called "the king" for a reason.
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Del Ray and La Reyna at Los Reyes de la Torta
Adam Richman of Man vs. Food put Torta Kings on the map, and the place has been packed ever since -- even in the middle of the afternoon. Richman took on the formidable Torta del Ray, a takes-two-hands (and maybe a fork) stack of ham, oozing mozzarella cheese, pork sirloin, breaded beef, sliced hot dog, chorizo omelet, tomato, onion, avocado and chipotle sauce ($9.50). If you can polish off this thing, you are a prince among men, if not a king. And if you'd like a more feminized but no less hefty version, try the La Reyna which swaps out chorizo and pork sirloin for breaded chicken breast, which is, of course, ever so much lighter. If you've really got something to prove, try the King Carlos V (basically the Del Rey in a five-pound version), which goes for $20. More good news: a second location on West Indian School.