This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.
Primera Taza's lonche de lomo might make you feel some strange things—Like Water for Chocolate-style, and it all has to do with the bread, a sourdough birote salado that Chuy Tovar imports himself from a panaderia in Guadalajara, Mexico, once a month.
"Mexico has some awesome breadmakers, but hardly anyone knows that," Tovar tells me. He is the owner of the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Boyle Heights, and creator of the elusive sandwich that is only available for one week out of the month, since he has to drive to Tijuana to pick up the bread whenever he wants to serve it.
I am sitting down across from him and trying to find out everything there is to know about this Mexican sandwich. It inspired a cult following in Los Angeles from the moment he put it as a special on the menu almost two years ago. Its fans include some of the most popular chefs cooking Mexican food in LA, like Wesley Avila, Ray Garcia, and Eddie Ruiz.
It is a seemingly simple thing: that bread, Mexican crema, roasted pork loin (with the fatcap left on), jalapeños, tomato, onion, and avocado—all showered in a thin red salsa, the recipe of which he picked up from his wife's father. He also does a vegetarian version where the tender pork is swapped out with milky panela cheese, whenever he can source it fresh from a local cheesemaker. As soon as you take your first bite, you will be taken aback by the sour flavor of the bread, tender crumb, and wonderfully jagged, charred crust. It is not quite a torta ahogada and it is not quite a torta. It is its own precious thing.
'I tried 20 different birotes salados around LA from everywhere you can imagine to try to find the right bread, even people making it in their backyards. But nothing came close to the stuff you can get in Guadalajara, so I just started bringing them directly from there myself.'
"I once served it to one of our regular customers who was also from Talpa, my hometown in Jalisco, and he just started bawling as he ate it because it reminded him of being a little kid in Guadalajara," Tovar says. "It started to get a little awkward, so I had to step away from the guy as he ate it and give him space to enjoy it." That very same customer had canceled two of his appointments that day to be among the first to enjoy the lonches. Tovar had got the birotes saladas in from Guadalajara at 2 AM the night before, so the rolls were still springy and soft from the bakery in Mexico.
"He's not the only one who has cried while eating it, too."
The reason why that man got so emotional, and the reason why people call throughout the month to reserve their lonches, is simply because of that wicked bread. "I tried 20 different birotes salados around LA from everywhere you can imagine to try to find the right bread, even people making it in their backyards," Tovar continues. "But nothing came close to the stuff you can get in Guadalajara, so I just started bringing them directly from there myself."
Tovar's claim probably has to do with the persnickety nature of sourdough in general that is dependent on the ambient yeasts, climate, and altitude, a.k.a., why sourdough bread from San Francisco tastes so much better than many of the other sourdoughs of the world. This is not his first foray into the world of importing things from Mexico. His background includes importing tequila and raicilla, Jalisco's native mezcal to tequila.
Naturally, Tovar won't disclose the exact bakery where he sources it from in Guadalajara, but he assures me that it is baked with wood. He dives a little bit into the history of the birote salado, which is believed to be the product of a Belgian sergeant named Camille Pirrotte who was stationed in Guadalajara during the brief French occupation in the 1860s. In an attempt to win over the Mexican locals during the occupation, Pirotte was given orders to teach residents how to make French bread.
Because there was no yeast available, however, he turned to natural fermentation for the dough instead. When the French were ousted from the country, Pirrotte stayed behind to open his own bakery and forever change the culinary landscape of Jalisco, Mexico with his bread. (You can guess where the name of the bread came from, too.)
When asked about what the difference is between a lonche and a traditional Mexican torta, Tovar responded: "A lonche is part of the torta family, just like tequila is part of the mezcal family."
After doing some research, the differences seem to be a matter of hot versus cold fillings, the type of bread used, and what part of Mexico you are from. For example, most people from Jalisco and other northern states would associate a lonche with birote bread and cold cuts, or a minimalist filling of meat. But if you are from Mexico City or anywhere in the southern states, you will most likely call a sandwich a torta. Still, in Mexico, this debate is a hotly contested topic.
Tovar's only goal is to replicate the nostalgic flavors of the lonches he grew up eating as a kid in Jalisco from his abarroteria corner store as accurate as possible, and to share that strong bond with other people who yearn for a taste of home in the form of good, crusty bread. It is an objective that he seems to have completed, as more and more people from Guadalajara are showing up in droves after hearing about it strictly by word of mouth.
He hopes to have his lonches available as a regular offering, but until then, be sure to call—or better yet, reserve your sandwich in advance.
"When I see other people crying eating my sandwich, I know that all of the hard work and stress of bringing in this bread is damn worth it."