Drive-Thru Detour

People often ask me about how I decide what restaurants to review, and how I find them.

Well, there's really no formula for it. A lot of the time, I get tips from friends, I hear about new places that've opened, or I find a noteworthy spot that has never been reviewed in the pages of New Times. I might get hungry for a certain kind of cuisine, or feel like checking out a particular part of the Valley.

And sometimes, I'm not thinking about my job at all. I'm just really, really hungry.


Tortas El G�ero

Tortas El G�ero, 2518 N. 16th Street

Torta Cubana: $5.90

Torta de cochinita: $4.99

Red chile burrito: $3.50

Shredded beef quesadilla: $4.69

Hours: Daily, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Such was the case when I discovered Tortas El Güero, this fabulous little Mexican sandwich shop on 16th Street. My growling stomach led me to it.

It was last year, on a random weeknight. My sweetie had other plans, my friends were all busy, my fridge was empty, and I needed to eat. And frankly, I didn't want to make a big project out of dinner. I wasn't in the mood to get dressed up or spend much money. My energy was plummeting, and I could feel myself getting crankier by the minute. Without even deciding on a destination, I hopped in my car and hit the gas pedal.

"No fast food . . ." I repeated to myself in a silent mantra. Sure, I'll head to a drive-thru in times of desperation, but I'd much rather support a local business instead of a chain. On that particular evening, not only did I want a mom-and-pop place, I wanted to try someplace new. Being hungry apparently makes me stubborn, too.

Convinced that I'd see something interesting if I just looked hard enough, I passed plenty of old favorites on my absurd trip to nowhere. Finally, when I was more than halfway to Scottsdale — a ridiculous distance for what I'd hoped would be a quick bite — I turned around and took a different route back to central Phoenix. The closer I got to my 'hood, the less I worried about novelty and the more I focused on driving. My hands were getting shaky.

And then, almost home, I saw something in a whole new light — that bright orange sign for Tortas El Güero, the quirky tangerine-painted stucco building I'd passed a thousand times. Why hadn't I gone there yet?

Errrrch. I swerved into the parking lot, marched right inside, and waited in line at the counter. Everyone around me was speaking Spanish, but as soon as I got to the front of the line and said hi to the young guy behind the counter, he greeted me warmly in English. Turns out, that was owner Gustavo Lom, who's been there almost every time I've visited (anonymously, of course). He opened Tortas El Güero in late 2004 and launched a Mesa location last year.

What I ordered that night — and what has kept me coming back to Tortas El Güero — was the awesome torta de cochinita. As with any sandwich, the quality of the bread will make or break it. This oversized model was made with fresh-baked telera, a soft, golden, lightly toasted bun that was so big I wished I had a third hand to hold it. Tucked inside was a thick layer of moist pulled pork in a light barbecue sauce that was soon dripping off my hands. Combined with typical torta toppings of sliced pickled jalapeno, tomato, shredded lettuce, and mayonnaise, it made for one sloppy, delicious sandwich. I washed it all down with a bottle of Mexican Coke. (They also have fresh fruit shakes, juices, and aguas frescas.)

Tortas El Güero offers 21 kinds of tortas in all, and I've barely dented the menu. But they all come on that tasty telera, and have the same fresh veggie toppings. A lot of them come with big chunks of avocado, and there are extra condiments at the salsa bar, too.

Running a close second to the cochinita was the pastor, lean chunks of pork in a peppery red chile sauce. It was, by far, the spiciest thing I tasted here, but in a good way — the heat never overwhelmed the taste. And I was surprised by how much I liked the Hawaiiana, a ham sandwich layered with mild queso fresco and sweet chunks of pineapple.

Carne asada, chopped grilled steak, had a great flavor, although I encountered a few bits of gristle. Alambre was similar to the asada but had diced green peppers and onions mixed in with the meat. And the Cubana was a honkin' big torta stuffed with cheese, slices of ham, roasted pork, and the same kind of fried beef cutlets that came on the Milaneza. While the latter was decent — flavored more by the herb-flecked breading than the paper-thin beef — I preferred the extravagant Mexican interpretation of a classic Cuban sandwich.

Tortas are obviously the biggest reason to come here, but there are a couple dozen other dishes as well. I liked the tangy desebrada (shredded beef) inside a lightly browned quesadilla; next time, I'll try that on a torta. I'd had the chicken sandwich before, and it was fine, but when I tried the chicken soft tacos, the meat was too salty, and dollops of sour cream weren't enough to balance it out. As for my red chile beef burrito, it was nothing fancy — just the meat rolled up in a tortilla — but its flavor was addicting. My mouth and lips felt warm for quite a while after I was finished.

Evenings at Tortas El Güero are mellow, but lunchtime is bustling, when the crowd includes young families and groups of chatty twentysomethings. The place is clean and bright, with pale, lemon-tinted walls, Coke memorabilia, and a kooky hand-painted mural of a sandwich.

Set aside some time for your visit to Tortas El Güero. This is no fast food, indeed.

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