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Roll call: Tito’s steps up with spicy sandwiches

Times Staff Writer

You say you want a sandwich, but one that’s a little out of the ordinary? Pally, you want to go to Tito’s Market in El Monte. It’s an Argentine deli -- that is, an Italian deli with a spicy South American accent -- and sandwiches are what it’s about.

Tito’s is the big place at the bottom of Tito’s Plaza on Garvey Avenue. Right inside the doors, you see people lining up at a counter with three cash registers. To the left are a dozen or so tables backed by an attractive display of wine bottles. Put a cork in that excitement, though, because a sign on the wall warns that you can’t drink alcoholic beverages on the premises. The bottles are just there to inspire you to buy one to take home -- half the space at Tito’s Market is a real market, with a butcher counter and a few aisles of Latin American shelf goods, including Argentine and Chilean wines priced as low as $20 for a 5-liter jug.

So find a place in one of the lines at the counter and make your choice from a wall menu (the one painted on wood over to your left, behind the steam table, is a little more extensive than the one behind the cash registers). Sandwiches come on sesame rolls in small and large sizes; the large rolls are crustier and taste fresher. All come with tomato and mayonnaise, sometimes with other ingredients and, unless you say no, a tablespoon or two of medium-hot green chiles.

Argentina is cattle country, so about half the hot sandwiches are beef: New York steak, filet, top round (cuadril), ranchera (steak with melted cheese), beef fajitas, milanesa (chicken-fried steak), napoletana (ditto plus ham and cheese) and pastrami. The steaks are cut thin and grilled carne asada-style. The sandwiches are all good; my favorites are the fajitas and the napoletana because of the greater range of flavors -- fried onions and slivers of sweet peppers on the one, ham and a mild white cheese on the other.

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Though beef seems to be the house specialty, I prefer a couple of the pork sandwiches. Adobado de puerco is thin slices of pork (a little chewy in parts) with a brusque tang of vinegar, cumin and hot pepper. It reminds me of the flavor of some of the better burritos al pastor around town. Like the fajitas, it includes slivers of onion and bell pepper, fried brown. This is a real mouthful.

The carnitas sandwich is simpler. It’s just chunks of pork that have been stewed tender and fried appetizingly brown and chewy, then electrified with green chiles.

As for the rest, chorizo is a roughly squashed patty of fried mild sausage meat, with cheese, tomatoes and bell peppers. Albondigas is basically an Italian meatball sandwich -- soft, faintly sweet meatballs with cheese and a tiny bit of tomato sauce -- that’s more memorable if you get it with the chiles.

That’s probably more sandwiches than you’d have at one sitting, but let’s keep going. There’s a chicken fajita sandwich with a good, mellow flavor that suggests a bit of chicken liver in the mix. Ternera is like the milanesa, substituting breaded veal scallops for the steak, with shredded lettuce to underline the sweetness of veal.

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The dozen cold sandwiches are Italian deli sandwiches, not the overloaded style, and range from a ham-and-mortadella sub to prosciutto. There’s also a thinly sliced matambre, that Argentine national dish of jellied flank steak stuffed with carrots, hard-boiled eggs and sweet peppers; it’s like a beef-based head cheese.

You don’t even have to get a sandwich. The steam table includes pork ribs (in a mildly sweet tomato sauce, like American-style baked ribs) and wonderful braised beef short ribs: rich, meaty and teasingly spiced with chiles. They’re sold by the pound. Also on the steam table are empanadas, one with a plain ground beef filling and the other with something like a fragrant, cuminy chicken chile with a tart green olive in it. Beside these are chile fries -- French fries spiced with red pepper, that is.

Tito’s doesn’t have a dessert list, but there are sweets for sale. A cylindrical case by the door holds plastic cartons of rice pudding, flan, jericalla (a flan without the caramel sauce), alfajores (cornmeal cookies sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche), cubitos (cubes of Jell-O in milk), perhaps a cake.

At the cash register, though, you can find something amazing -- two hemispheres of stiff Italian meringue piped in a swirling pattern, stuck together with a dulce de leche filling. They’re so sweet your teeth will ache and so big you probably won’t be able to get your jaws around them. Just twist them apart Oreo cookie-style, and the dulce de leche will make everything OK.

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Tito’s Market

Location: 9814 E. Garvey Ave., El Monte. (626) 579-1893; fax (626) 579-0160.

Price: Cold sandwiches, $2.10 to $5.50; hot sandwiches, $2.75 to $5.95; empanadas, 95 cents; ribs, $5.50 per pound.

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Best dishes: Adobado de puerco sandwich, carnitas sandwich, beef ribs, chicken empanada, meringue.

Details: Open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.


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