Move over, tacos. It's time to share the spotlight with your sandwich counterpart: the torta.
A torta is more than just a Mexican version of a beefed-up sandwich; it is an entirely different species. A good torta is usually available anywhere that a good taco is, with just as many regional variations. But tortas trump tacos in portability, heft and, most of the time, value, because they offer more of your favorite taco filling for your hard-earned buck.
When all the elements — the freshly baked roll, the seasoned juicy meat, the crisp raw vegetables, the creamy spread, the spicy salsas, the salty cheese — are just right, they really do represent all of the bold flavors of Mexican cuisine.
Here are eight of the city's most notable tortas.
Torta de bacalao at Cook's Tortas
Using the proper bread is half the battle for a memorable torta. Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park bakes its own bread every morning for its prized sandwiches. The handmade rolls are chewy, ciabatta-like and slightly sour thanks to a sourdough starter that was brought there from Bouchon in Yountville, Calif. (Cook's founding baker used to work there). The bread gracefully absorbs and retains any of Cook's fillings, especially its torta de bacalao. It's a torta that is stuffed with a delicious Mexican-style salt cod guisado (stew), seasoned with olives, red pepper, roasted red peppers and garlic.
1944 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (323) 278-3536, www.cookstortas.com
Cemita de barbacoa de borrego at Cemitas Don Adrian
Cemitas poblanas are Puebla's regional answer to a torta, immediately distinguishable by the sesame seed-studded, clam-shaped, sweet-and-salty bun. Typical fillings for this type of torta include milanesa (breaded fried beef) and Mexican headcheese. Whatever filling you choose, the cemita will always be layered with a handful of salty quesillo (imported from Mexico), an exorbitant amount of fanned ripe avocado, raw white onion, whole chipotle chiles and papalo, a pungent herb that is about 1,000 times stronger than cilantro and epazote combined. There are dozens of legit cemita poblana hawkers around town, but the ones at Cemitas Don Adrian in the San Fernando Valley are ideal. Try the spicy lamb barbacoa. Not many offer lamb, and its gaminess really shines along with the rest of the sandwich's bold flavors.
14902 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 786-0328
Unagi eel torta at Tacos Punta Cabras
Josh Gil and Daniel Snuka are perhaps the most underappreciated chefs elevating Mexican food in Los Angeles. They apply a subtle fine-dining aesthetic to humble Mexican seafood staples such as ceviches, cócteles and fish tacos. So it is no surprise that their take on a torta is the most avant-garde version in town. Just check your conventional expectations at the door, because their torta involves an unruly Mexican-Japanese mishmash of Kewpie mayonnaise, black bean-avocado leaf paste, baked unagi eel in a sweet soy sauce, avocado, tomato, cilantro and raw onion on a lightly toasted telera bun that is still soft on the inside.
2311 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 917-2244, www.tacospuntacabras.com
La Monarca's mollete de soyrizo
A mollete is the official breakfast torta of Mexican champions. Despite this, aside from the several La Monarca panaderias around town, not many other establishments have discovered its potential. Given its similarities to the currently trending "avocado toast," it has everything going on to become the next big thing in the food world. Simply put, it is the open-faced tartine version of a torta, smeared with smooth refried beans and topped with a Mexican cheese, such as queso fresco or cotija, or a melty one like adobera or queso Chihuahua. It is then finished with a couple of tablespoons of salsa verde. At La Monarca, they adapted the mollete to cater to Angelenos' health-conscious behaviors and offer a version with a layer of vegetarian soyrizo. A whole wheat bolillo is available too if you want to go that way. Washed down with a glass of chilled cold-brewed cafe de olla, you'll be ready for even the longest of days.
Multiple locations. www.lamonarcabakery.com
Mushroom tinga torta at Torta Company
Torta Company is the sandwich concept of the Loteria Grill franchise, and the same attention to quality and freshness that distinguishes Loteria can be found here. Within just a few months of opening, their prized tortas are already establishing a cult following with the downtown lunch crowd. There is a torta for everyone, but praise needs to be given to the innovative mushroom tinga torta. Unlike the more common heavier torta fillings, it takes the tinga technique — a kind of chipotle-based stew — and applies it to mushrooms instead, making for an unexpectedly satisfying meaty filling that won't leave you in a food coma afterward.
735 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, (213) 438-6782, www.tortacompany.com
Pambazo at La Placita del DF
The pambazo comes in as the sloppiest in the pantheon of delicious Mexican tortas. This torta originated in Toluca but was made popular in the streets of Mexico City as a popular street food typically eaten when the nighttime munchies struck. It defies the traditional torta paradigm as its mashed potato-chorizo filling celebrates that inexplicable carb-on-carb deliciousness. Also, it is completely submerged in a burgundy-hued guajillo chile sauce and then grilled on the flat-top until the edges get golden brown and crispy. A smattering of shredded iceberg lettuce, crema Mexicana and crumbled cotija cheese adds a refreshing contrast and makes this torta irresistible.
1859 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 780-8232
Torta de carnitas de pato at Cacao Mexicatessen
Cacao Mexicatessen was a neighborhood gem as soon as the brother-and-sister team of Andrew and Christy Luján opened their doors in 2009. Their refined take on tacos, tortas and burritos was instantly appealing to their laid-back yet sophisticated northeast Los Angeles clientele. Their torta de carnitas de pato perfectly captures this quaintly classy, refreshing approach. It is basically duck confit with Mexican spices and, although it is available on a handmade tortilla or wrapped in a flour tortilla, those won't quite absorb the luscious seasoned duck fat as well as the locally sourced torta bun, which happens to be a crusty Italian take on a bolillo bun made next door at Eagle Rock Italian Bakery.
1576 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 478-2791, www.cacaodeli.com
Torta ahogada at Tortas Bravas
Add tortas ahogadas to the list of invaluable items that the state of Jalisco has contributed to Mexican gastronomy, along with birria and tequila. Essentially, it is a torta that uses a special sourdough birote salado (extraordinarily crusty and yeasty, similar to a baguette) bread indigenous to Guadalajara. It is stuffed with caramelized pork carnitas and a smear of pinto beans, drowned in a fiery tomato chile de arbol salsa and then topped with oregano-scented pickled onions. The bread eventually soaks up the fierce salsa and makes for a panzanella-like eating experience that may require a fork and knife. Take note: When paired with a tall cup of horchata, this torta is especially heavenly after a night of drinking.
7414 Florence Ave., Downey, (562) 806-7181