Food by VICE

We Spoke to the Guru of Tortas About the Glorious Mexican Sandwich

What’s better: tortas or tacos? For food writer Pedro Reyes, author of '¡Acá las tortas!,' the answer is quite simple: a quality torta is better than a good taco, and the stories behind this iconic sandwich run even deeper.

by Margot Castañeda
Jan 5 2016, 9:00pm

"They are for the lonely folk, families, cantinas, and hangovers. They are for office workers in a hurry, and those who don't own a thing. They are from the streets. And, above all, they don't differentiate between social classes in a city that's fragmented and torn by differences."

What's better: tortas or tacos?

For any Mexican, this question causes emotional turmoil, and your answer could ignite a number of heated discussions. But for food writer Pedro Reyes, author of ¡Acá las tortas!, the answer is quite simple: a quality torta is better than a good taco, and the stories behind this iconic sandwich run even deeper.

Reyes spent a year sampling the sandwich from different joints around Mexico City, which was a good enough reason as any for us to recently sit down with him to discuss the book, a delicious collection of stories centered around the Mexican staple. It's also packed with profiles of legendary torta-makers, but rather than becoming a torta guide to Mexico City, the book is an anthropological history that will leave you dreaming of a torta cubana, rusa, samaritana, or a classic one with ham.

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Pedro Reyes with his beloved torta. All photos by Beto Lanz.

MUNCHIES: How would you describe your relationship to tortas? Pedro Reyes: I think they are one of the most endearing Mexican staple foods for both locals and foreigners alike. As Mexicans, I don't think we are very conscious about the amount of tortas that are out there; the ones that go somewhat unnoticed. We're also not very conscious about the great torta tradition across this country—especially in Mexico City—which is why I found it very important to create documentation around it.

So what makes a quality torta? First off, avocados and refried beans must be smeared on both sides of a bread bun. That's the law, because traditional tortas shouldn't have mayo or mustard. If anything, they might have some crema, a mild sour cream. The beans and avocado give it that creamy texture similar to mayonnaise, and jitomate (tomato blended with a bit of oregano), will give it the freshness in every bite that cuts through the grease. Then, salted onion is added which will give it that incredible texture and crunch. The cheese is vital—ideally, it's queso fresco. And when it comes to the actual bread, some joints will use a roll or baguette, but the telera is the softest kind. I don't know what came first: telera bread or the torta, but I do know it's the ideal bread because it holds all the ingredients together, fits perfectly in your hands, and doesn't disintegrate as you eat it.

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In the process of writing this book, how many do you think you have you consumed? I started with the torta places that I have a history with and had a story to tell about, but along the way—as more and more popped up—I tried tortas that I didn't know existed like the Tortas del Recreo in Iztacalco. They're filled with oven-roasted ham, a chipotle-almond sauce, dried fruits, and are of a good size. It was incredible. I was also surprised by the ones at El Monje Loco in Cuicuilco, which are some of the last cold tortas in the city worth talking about.

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Does anyone in Mexico City even serve cold tortas anymore? The funny thing is that tortas were born cold, but people slowly started using electric grills to warm up the bread. And as the sandwiches became hot, they came up with the idea of adding fried, grilled, and stewed items like cochinita pibil, grilled ham, and breaded meat cutlets. That's when cold tortas started losing their popularity, but I think they are incredible. I think the best tortas in Mexico City are at La Texcocana in front of the Teatro Metropólitan in the historic center. It's a 100-year-old business run by an elderly woman. She seems tired and wasn't interested in being featured in the book, which is sad because they're wonderful.

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If you could select the most perfect torta in the world, where is it? It varies with my mood. Most mornings, I crave a tamal torta—an incredible breakfast, so as long as the tamal is good. At lunch, I'll eat a cubana torta from Tortas don Polo, or a grilled one from La Barraca Valenciana. At night, I might eat a roasted ham one from Tortas del Recreo.

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Why do you think there are more taco joints than torta joints in Mexico? I think it's harder to make a good torta than a good taco. That's my theory. Maybe a torta is more like homemade cuisine than street food, but I do think there are fewer quality torta joints because you need good bread and a varied selection of ingredients to make a memorable one. There are many torta joints out there, but not all of them have the food quality and hygiene to make them good. A good taco is easy to make with any tortilla, meat, and quality sauce. Tortas, like other staple foods, are a response to the people's needs and are made with ingredients that are easily accessible.

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At this point in your life, you've tried all types of tortas: hot, cold, big, small, street, and gourmet ones. Which one has touched you the most? The Tortas don Polo, because it's the story of me and my father. But also the ones from chef José Miguel García of Barraca Valenciana, or the ones from La Samaritana. I'm doubting these are the only 25 tortas that are worth talking about. I want to continue this investigation and show other torta joints that were not featured in this book.

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Thanks so much for speaking with us, and congrats on the new book.