"You know your torta comes covered in hot sauce, right?"
I was standing at the counter at TEG Torta Shop (formerly Tortas el Guero), the humble but great torta hall on 16th Street, which has earned a reputation over 15 years in business. I had just ordered a Torta Ahogada. And then, after paying, I asked for cups to fill up at the iced salsa bar. Most of the salsas here are spicy.
TEG has a menu jammed with just over a dozen tortas. This is a menu with no weak links. The tortas are based on more traditional preparations (carne asada, ham and cheese, cochinita pibil) but range to a few selections you might be a little more surprised to see in a Mexican torta shop (Hawaiian and Cuban sandwiches). There is even a turkey tail torta.
There is also a chile-covered torta. One with a roll so sopping with russet rocket fuel that, when it comes to your table, in famously little time, it looks like a roasted meat.
You realize that the cashier was right. You leave your extra cups of salsa on the side.
Guadaljara, Mexico, home of tequila and birria, also gives the world the Torta Ahogada, though the world may be less aware of this fiery sandwich than the other two staples. “Ahogada” means drowned. It refers to the chile sauce situation. The sauce has been ladled freely over the sandwich rather than merely slicked on a bun, disrupting standard sandwich ratios by, in essence, making the sauce the star.
Your entire Torta Ahogada has been smothered at TEG. The soft brown shell of the bolilo bread, freshly baked every morning, has wrinkled like a raisin. Lurid pepper sauce collects in a pool on your black plate.
The chile sauce here is made from chile de arbol. It is spicy even for heat seekers. The smoke and fruity tones of the chile are low. A homey, straightaway spice builds as you go. It seems to have the palliative properties of chicken soup, in a strange and thrilling way.
The result of so much sauce is that components usually at the center of a sandwich get moved to the side. There are slips of pork loin between the bread, and some refried beans too, but they become peripheral. Though they are the filling, you experience them more on the level of a spice, of a few ingredients buried in the broth of a delicious soup.
Like a missile, the chile heat rises. It reaches a point where jets of spice seem to needle your tongue. Luckily, a lettuce cup sails the sea of fiery sauce on your plate. Bites of lettuce are cool and crisp. The tomato and avocado they cradle provide their own fleeting oases from the heat.
This is a great torta from a great torta shop. Owner and manager Gustavo Lom says that his Torta Ahogada is a sandwich more on the traditional end. He says that it hasn’t been jazzed up. He says that it's simple and true to Guadalajara.
In this age of food when the new and the visually neon are drugs to many eaters, when people tend to eat with their eyes and iPhones, we could use a few more good old fashioned artful chile hurricanes.
TEG Torta Shop (Tortas el Guero). 2518 North 16th Street, Phoenix; 602-252-9228.
Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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