Every Sunday morning, thousands of Guadalajara residents engage in a ritual that is every bit as sacred as Mass. Before, after, or instead of slinking into church, they brave the scorching midday sun to find a hole-in-the-wall eatery where they can chow down a torta ahogada and sweat out the previous night's tequila.
The city's signature dish, the torta ahogada (literally a "drowned sandwich") is essentially a pork-stuffed baguette seasoned with salt and lime juice, garnished with raw slices of onion and swamped in so much spicy salsa that it must be eaten with a spoon. Unique to Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest metropolis, it is considered a potent hangover cure.
"We get more customers at weekends when people come in to recover from a night of partying," says Armando Segura from Betos, a family-run restaurant in the heart of Santa Teresita, a colorful working-class neighborhood reminiscent of small-town Mexico. Bunched around the tables and perched on the unvarnished log bench out front are half a dozen local families and several disheveled partygoers still up from the night before.
"When you're hungover, your body is dehydrated and you need liquid," Segura says, explaining that the fiery chili is believed to help flush out the alcohol while the hot broth that accompanies his tortas serves to rehydrate the body.
But the torta ahogada is more than just a hangover cure. The source of great local pride, it is also considered a fine breakfast, lunch or even a pre-game snack sold at stalls outside the city's soccer stadiums.
According to local legend, the torta ahogada was invented early in the 20th century when a construction worker accidently dropped his baguette in a bowl of salsa and fell in love with the end product. Today there are hundreds of torta ahogada joints across Guadalajara, mostly street-side stands or modest restaurants with plastic tables and chairs.
The biggest and best-known restaurant chain is Las Famosas, the self-proclaimed "cathedral of tortas." With dozens of outlets across the city, Las Famosas serves several variations, including tortas filled with shredded chicken, pork stomach, shrimp, or panela cheese, at 30 to 50 pesos ($2 to $4) each.
But for a truly unique experience there are few better places than Betos, a traditional outlet where the Segura Briseño family has been serving up its own brand of tortas for 32 years. The restaurant walls are lined with sepia photographs of Guadalajara as it looked a century ago and the food is served in rustic clay plates, accompanied with a plastic cup of piping hot consommé that can be sipped or poured over the tortas, which cost just 32 pesos ($2.40).
Tortas ahogadas are traditionally made using carnitas—small chunks of succulent, braised pork leg—but Betos claims to be the only place in Mexico that uses shoulder of pork, as dictated by the recipe left by the restaurant's late founder, Humberto Segura senior.
"First we marinate the meat and then we leave it for about three hours so that it absorbs the flavors. Then we either cook it in the oven or braise it in the consommé," says chef Humberto Segura junior. Once ready, the meat is stuffed in a crunchy, submarine-shaped bread roll known as birote, which is made from fermented savory dough baked for 45 to 50 minutes in a brick oven sealed with clay.
Most restaurants then simply pour a tomato sauce over the torta, but at Betos they also soak it in more of the house consommé made from pork jus seasoned with ground mirasol chili, basil, garlic and tomato. Nourishing but not overpowering, the consommé ensures the meat remains extra-tender. Customers can then season their torta with the usual choice of salt, lime juice, onion and an explosive, crimson-colored salsa made from chile de árbol.
Often accompanied with crispy tacos stuffed with potato or refried beans, tortas are best washed down with soda, horchata, hibiscus water, or an ice-cold beer. Betos also serves tepache, a tangy and refreshing red-orange beverage made from fermented pineapple that predates the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico.
Perhaps the key to the torta's unique charm is the fact it's often impossible to find an authentic version outside of Guadalajara. When local soccer star Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez moved to England's Manchester United he admitted in interviews that tortas ahogadas were among the things he missed most from Mexico. Many Guadalajara natives who have migrated to other parts of Mexico evidently feel the same way. "We get more orders to send tortas ahogadas to other parts of the country than any other kind of shipment," a worker at a local branch of DHL told me.
So why haven't tortas ahogadas prospered elsewhere in Mexico? Some claim it's because of the local bread: With a tough exterior but a soft interior, the birote's unique consistency enables it to absorb the salsa that is so crucial to the torta without crumbling or dissolving. "You can't use any other bread to make a torta ahogada," Armando Segura explains. "And the birote is unique to Guadalajara because of the altitude, the climate and the minerals in the local water."
The birote is believed to date back to 1864, when Belgian chef Camille Pirotte was working for one of Napoleon's battalions during the brief French occupation of Mexico. Tasked with creating a French-style baguette, Pirotte was unable to find yeast anywhere in Guadalajara, so he improvised by leaving the dough to ferment. The crusty, slightly sour-tasting bread was an instant hit and has been a staple of the local diet ever since. And once combined with the right filling and enough sauce, it proved a match made in heaven.
Or that's what the people skipping out on mass for a sandwich can tell themselves.