Nicolas Gilman, who actually makes a bit of a living writing, in English, about food in Mexico (can you sense the jealousy in my tone of voice?), calls the torta “the quintessential fusion dish” and he’s right, or at least he’s right when the focus is on Mexico City where Nicolas makes his home.
But outside of the capital…and perhaps a few other big cities…the torta, Mexico’s version of the sandwich, can be a bit of a rare bird and, in San Miguel de Allende, appearances approach the frequency of dodo sightings.
Which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the movie “Chef”. Because “Chef” is now on Netflix and it makes me excruciatingly hungry for a Cuban sandwich. Because through about half of the movie, the chef of the title is constantly making Cuban sandwiches. And very good ones at that.
Now let me make one thing perfectly clear (yes, that was my Nixon impression), the Mexican Torta Cubana has almost nothing to do with the Cuban sandwich (which sounds even tastier when, in “Chef”, Sofia Vergara…yes, the sizzling Latina from “Modern Family”…says sanweeeeeesh). But then again, the Cuban sandwich has almost nothing to do with Cuba (just try to find a good one in Havana) but everything to do with Florida. But there are some similarities between the Cuban sandwich and the Torta Cubana.
The Mexican Torta Cubana and the Cuban sandwich are both served on a roll. They both contain pork. They both have ham. They both include cheese. And…well, that’s about it.
Before I talk specifically about the Torta Cubana, I should go back to talking about Mexican tortas in general. Or better yet, let one of my favorite food writers, Naomi Tomky, who pens for seriouseats.com, talk about them: “The taco and the torta are the twin pillars of Mexican street food, but where the taco is small and sexy and has long since seduced all of America in its many forms, the torta (with its many Mexican sandwich siblings) is just teetering on the brink of international stardom. The small size of a taco makes it an easy step into new flavors, but a sandwich is a meal, it’s a commitment.”
I’ll add one more fact…or perhaps more of an opinion…about what separates the taco from the torta. The taco is best consumed after the sun goes down, from chrome carts powered by propane tanks. The torta is best savored between nine and three, when the sun is at its height, somewhere indoors.
The classic torta spot in San Miguel de Allende has always been Torta Munda on Umaran so much so that my first born child, who hasn’t been in San Miguel for 15 years (yes, it is time he visited), still talks about their sandwiches. But despite having about 15 different tortas, they don’t have a Torta Cubana.
Lolita on Salida a Celaya used to have a Torta Cubana even though it seemed like far too upscale a place to tackle a downscale torta. But last time I was there, it wasn’t. It’s gone from their menu.
Which takes us to two of the best places for tortas…well, OK, two of the very few places for tortas. They are conveniently located, like bosom buddies, side by side in El Mercado Juan de Dios. One counter is very subtle in its approach to attracting people to eat there, so quiet it doesn’t even have a name other than the one I’ve given it which is No Name. The other, La Rica Torta, is in your face with its enticing, come hither graphics. When it comes down to who makes the very best torta though, in my opinion, quiet beats loud.
In Mexico City, ordering a torta can be a terrifying task. For they all have fancy names that only the foremost of aficianados can understand. On a menu, you might find Chanclas, Guajolota, Cochinita, Cemita, Pelona, Ahogada, Marinas, Guacamaya, and the one I do understand, the Cubana.
In San Miguel de Allende, ordering a torta at La Rica Torta is only a slightly less daunting task. Here their names are all pretty well based on geography. There’s Azteca, Espanola, Hawaiiana, Francesca, Ranchera, Suiza, Americana, and, of course, that one that finds its way on to most every Mexican torta menu, the Cubana.
At the No Name Tortas counter next door, It’s relatively easy to order a torta. They keep things simple with straightforward names, handwritten, that describe what comes inside the bun. Those fillings include Salchicha, Huevo, Chorizo, Jamon and, once again, the one I almost always order, Cubana.
Now just because the name is the same at two different torta stands does not mean that the contents will be the same. For a Torta Cubana seems to consist of virtually everything that the torta stand may have on hand. And, where a typical Mexican torta might include everything but the kitchen sink, a Mexican Torta Cubana might even include the sink.
In Lucky Peach, the ultimate foodie magazine, Brigham Barnes calls the Torta Cubana “a savagely beautiful meat beast that the less artful or non-smitten might call a Mexican garbage plate on bread.”
David Lida, author of First Stop in the New World, and a man with an obvious passion for tortas, says “If a torta isn’t precisely a work of art, it is by all means a handicraft.”
In Mexico, the craftsmen who makes tortas have a name. They are called torteros. At the counters in the Juan de Dios market, the craftsmen are actually craftswomen and are called torteras (at least by me). They start usually with a soft roll called a bollito unless you are like me and order one of the tortas especiales or the tortas gigantes. In that case the torta will start with a telera.
Now I’m never sure if it’s the camel or the dromedary that has two humps but I’m sure that it’s the telera that has three. It’s a roll about eight inches long by about five inches wide topped by those three humps. With its size, loaf might be a more appropriate word than roll.
After you order your Torta Cubana at No Name Tortas, the tortera will ask you if you would like it con huevo and you will say con todo because quantity is the most essential ingredient of a Torta Cubana. The tortera will then scramble the egg in a bowl and, gently, roll it onto the grill. Next, she will cut the telera in half, then smear the inside with a generous glob of mayonnaise and place each side face down on the grill. She will then reach into each of three tubs and pull out a small handful of what she calls salchicha (and I call chopped up wieners), a medium size handful of the most frighteningly red chorizo, and a large handful of what she calls milanesa (and I call breaded pork). They will then be placed next to the egg on the grill. Next comes three half rashers of thick, smoky bacon to prevent the other four items on the grill from suffering from loneliness.
Now, comes the time for dairy. The tortera will place a bright yellow square of processed milk solids (you know, the kind that come with the Kraft word on the plastic wrap) on the grill. Beside it she will place a handful of crumbly cheese and construction of the sandwich will commence.
One half of the telera will be turned over on the grill and on it will be placed the bacon, followed by a slice of ham and a slice of what the tortera calls queso de puerco (and I call head cheese and Don Day’s Wife calls mystery meat). A spatula will then pick up the salchicha, chorizo and milanesa (it takes a number of attempts) and place them delicately on top. Next comes the egg and two cheeses plus more dairy, this time a fat slab of fresh white goat cheese.
Then it’s salad time. Shredded lettuce, then sliced tomatoes, half an avocado, and a slight pause while, if you’re as pink as me, the tortera will ask are you sure you want chilis, you will say un pocito and three slices of pickled jalapeños will be placed on the summit of the mountain.
The fillings complete, the tortera will now place the other half of the telera on top and strong-arm it down one last time on the grill, reducing its thickness from about six inches to four inches. She will then slice it in half and attempt the delicate operation of maneuvering it onto a plastic plate of the most unappetizing color without losing a single chopped weiner or flake of chorizo, an almost impossible task.
The result: A sandwich of epic proportions that might be unrecognizable to its namesake John Montagu (yes, he was the Earl of Sandwich). So enormous it would rival the middle of the night creations of Dagwood Bumstead. So filled with flavors that every bite is like savoring a new dish.
But one important warning. Do not attempt to eat a Torta Cubana alone. It is best when shared with a loved one. Or a perfect stranger if necessary. Or even better (and I’ve seen it done), a family of four. Which is one helluva deal for $61 pesos including a 600 ml Coca Lite.
El Mercado Juan de Dios is located at Indio Triste 14B in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm daily.