Monday, March 29, 2010

All Tortas are Sandwiches...

...but not all sandwiches are tortas. If I could somehow make a Venn Diagram to express that point I would.

For those who don't know, a torta is, uh, well I'll let Wikipedia explain:

"A torta is a Mexican sandwich, served on an oblong 6-8 inch firm, crusty white sandwich roll, called a bolillo, telera or birote. "Telera" is soft, round bread; also commonly used is the Bolillo, a torpedo-shaped French roll with a thick and crunchy crust. Tortas can be served hot or cold."

But let me back up a little...

The genesis for this blog came out of my desire to eat at every mexican restaurant on Franklin Boulevard. Now for those who don't know Sacramento, Franklin Boulevard is a long road runs from the edge of Downtown all the way past Elk Grove. The heart of it is between 12th Avenue and Florin Road, where many latino families live and work. I describe it to people as a little bit of East L.A. in good ole Sacramento. When I started this quest, pre-blog, I set out, down Franklin on a monday evening looking for the first place I saw open. That place was a little restaurant named:
Super Tortas Chilangas "El Abuelo".

[For those who may not know, the word Chilanga refers to something from Mexico City, and El Abuelo means the grandfather.]

El Abuelo (which I'll use to refer to the place instead of writing out the whole damn name every time) is at 5045 Franklin Blvd which is across from La Esperanza Bakery and basically next door to Morant's Sausage and the Pet Hospital, about 1/8 of a mile north of Fruitridge Road. It is one of those places that you pass by for years without thinking- something I had done for years, but glad I finally stopped at.

I knew this place was the real deal the second I walked in with its cinderblock walls covered in bright pastels, telenovelas playing on the two televisions in the place, with unrealistically voluptuous latinas in sexy shoes, and the ever-so slight smell of Pine Sol (I don't know why, but I associate that smell with Mexico). Sitting in the booths were unshaven day laborers having a beer as they pointed at the girls on the tv along with families who were lower middle class at best, all with tortas in front of them. The lilting sound of spanish being spoken filled the room. No english spoken here.

When I approached the counter, the pretty teenaged latina smiled and welcomed me, asking me what I'd like to eat. Now, I should note that I speak some spanish, but not as well as I should or would like to. It becomes all to clear to people who really speak spanish that mine isn't so good, and if they speak english will be merciful and start speaking in english. This was one of those times...

Her: What would you like?
Me: I don't know. I've never been here before. What's good?
Her: Everything.
Me: Of course you're going to say that. I want you to tell me what you would eat.

She grabbed a menu and explained that their specialty was the torta.

Now they had a few other things on their menu (the requisite tacos, tostadas, enchiladas), [dig the use of the Superman "S"]

but I loved the fact that they were just a torta shop. And as St. Anthony (Bourdain) has taught us- Beware of restaurants with page after page of stuff and be happy when you find a simple menu.

When I asked the nice girl behind the counter which torta she liked best, she pointed to the Torta Cubana: ham, sausage, pork thigh, melted cheese, tomato, avocado, and jalapeno topped off with a fried egg!

[side note- any burger or sandwich with a fried egg in it automatically becomes at least 6 to 8 times more awesome than the same sandwich without]

I was hooked. I savored every bit of yummy pork goodness and washed it down with a Mexican Coca-Cola, you know the kind made with real sugar instead of the fake sugar they put in U.S. Coca-Cola.

I knew I was on to something and began to sing the praises of this ungodly good, pig fueled extravaganza to anyone who would listen. Finally I was told, "Dude, you need to start a blog to talk about this kind of shit."

Which leads us to today...

I will, when I can, find a partner(s) in food for these excursions because I need to have someone order something other than what I'm eating...and, because I like the conversation and can get their take on what we're eating. Today's fellow eater was my good friend, local comedienne Tifany Shultz. Be sure to catch Tiff at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, located in the MARRS building on 20th & J.

[*NOTE TO ALL POTENTIAL FELLOW EATERS- you can remain anonymous if you'd like]

After assuring Tiff that I wouldn't make her eat anything crazy like cows tongue or menudo, nor would I think any less of her for wearing running shoes with her work clothes we made our way out of Downtown, onto Broadway and down Franklin. Minutes later we arrived at the Temple of Tortas. We found our way to a booth and sat down with our menus. It went without saying that I would be having the Torta Cubana. Tiff opted for the Hawaiian because it had no sausage, which apparently she doesn't like (must resist the urge to make an inappropriate joke at least here on the blog because I couldn't resist in person). The Hawaiian came with ham, pineapple, cheese, avocado, tomato and jalapeno.

As we waited for the food, I explained to Tiffany what a torta was and how these tortas were sent by the Baby Jesus. Alas, they arrived.

The Hawaiian:

The Cubana:

As Tiffany got her torta, her first reaction was, and I quote:
"Smells so good!"

Followed by:
"This is really good"
"I like the ham and REALLY like the bread"

As Tiffany observed, these weren't really sandwiches, even though they were sandwiches. For the most part, when you get a grilled sandwich, parts of it are still cold. These were warm from top to bottom.

I have to point out the pork thigh in the Cubana. When I was a kid, my dad would make pork that he lightly battered in flower, pepper and salt before deep frying. It was so tasty. The pork in the Cubana is prepared in the exact same way. It gave me that memory of youth. It was comfort food the minute I tasted it. I mean, any thing pork is comfort food to me, especially with three kinds packed into one cheesy, egg topped package...but that pork effing good.

As you can see, the tortas won today as neither Tiff nor I were able to finish.

But it will make a great snack for later...

So next time you have a hankering for a sandwich, and you have some time, go and visit El Abuelo. It will be the best sandwich that isn't a sandwich you've ever had.

Man on a mission

Where to begin...SO many blogs...SO many food blogs...

I guess I am one of the many who has been swept up by the food renaissance that has been spreading across the United States over the past 10 or so years. The rise of the Food Network and other food featuring media outlets has created nouveau gourmands out of many of us, mesmerized by countless reruns of Iron Chef (the original (sorry the US version just doesn't measure up)), Paula Dean (Queen of Buttery Deep Fried Southern Goodness), and Anthony Bourdain (His sincere love of Street Food and general punk rock attitude being an inspiration for this blog). These people have reminded us to stop and smell the roses, or more accurately, to stop and really taste the food.

Eating is so much more than a function of nourishment. Food is a form of communication, telling a story of where people are from and what they're all about. It is deeply intimate, sharing a taste from an old family recipe, hands carefully preparing ingredients, trying to convey a story. Because good food, as we've all been taught by the food media, ought to tell a story.

But I don't want to tell the same story...

Don't get me wrong. I love "fine food", the high-end-let's-dress-up-nice-and-pay-a-lot-of-money type experience. I love pink filet mignon. I love stinky cheese. I will eat carpaccio. Bring the fresh oysters unto me. Give me raw salmon. I will go to the French Laundry when I can afford it...I promise. The thing is though, those stories seem to have already been told by so many. I want to share the stories told not by "Chefs", but by "Cooks". Stories told in working class neighborhood eateries, filled with day laborers and families. Stories of Mexico City, Guadalajara, Saigon, Szechuan, or Bangkok told in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Thai.

I want to tell the stories of food from the hood.

This is about working class people and their food. It is humble and soulful. Sacramento is one of the most diverse places in the United States (at least it was according to Time Magazine). This diversity exists outside of Downtown and Midtown (I'm not hating...I'm just saying if you think Zocalo or Centro are real authentic Mexican food). This diversity is certainly not in the strip mall hells of Natomas or Roseville (ok...maybe I'm hating a little on these places). This diversity exists in tiny little places down Stockton Boulevard or Franklin Boulevard. This is where I'm going.

Taking my cue from Anthony Bourdain (how many of us who take on this topic aren't taking their cues from him) and his love of street food. I will go and eat with "the people" in neighborhoods where the suburbanite or midtown hipster just wont.

I'm going to The Hood and I'm going to eat...honest and unpretentious food byt honest and unpretentious people.

Hope you all enjoy this adventure along with me.