View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “Drowning, Not Eating; L.A.'s Tortas Ahogadas” photo gallery.
Tortas cubanas are almost as common as burritos in Los Angeles. Mexico City–style pambazos rule the world of street food. The muscular cemita Poblano commands a fleet of trucks extending as far as the Westside. But the king of Mexican sandwiches is the mighty torta ahogada — drowned sandwich — a mass of bread and sauce and meat that is less a foodstuff than a way of life. You do not nibble at a torta ahogada; you dive straight into it, trusting that you will come out alive. I had always thought that roasted goat was the emblematic dish of Guadalajara, but tortas ahogadas joints there outnumber birria parlors at least 20:1.
It is possible to assume a revisionist stance toward the torta ahogada — the version made with marlin at the splendid Guadalajara cantina Loncherita comes to mind — but the parameters of the classic sandwich are rigid. It must be constructed with a kind of hard-crusted roll called a birote, which is split and smeared with a thin layer of lardy beans before it is stuffed with chunks of roasted pork. A cup or so of thin tomato sauce is poured over the top, augmented with as much chile sauce as you can tolerate. There will be strands of house-pickled onion strewn lovingly, and limes to squeeze over the top. Plunge your hand into the blood-heat sauce, clutch the dripping sandwich in one hand, and devour it before the roll collapses into your lap.
If you’ve performed correctly, you will feel as if you’ve just lapped up an entire bottle of homemade Tapatio sauce. The restaurants that specialize in tortas ahogadas tend to have signs emblazoned with fire-breathing dragons, dancing infernos or sweating happy faces whose tongues loll from their mouths as if they were overheated curs. You do not just consume a torta ahogada, you wear it on your skin.
I mentioned last week that Stephanie Quiles from the newspaper Mural brought me a take-out torta ahogada at the Guadalajara book fair, and that I burned with shame as I attempted to reconstruct the sandwich from the plastic bags of beans, chile, limes and tomato purée that came in the takeout container. I had tasted tortas ahogadas, I knew the flavor, but I was ignorant of the grammar. In my dreams, I revisit the humiliation of spilling the chile into the meat of the sandwich rather than pouring it boldly onto the roll. At El Vaquero in Alhambra, at the wonderful La Chiva Loca in Downey, at the old-fashioned Tortas Ahogadas El Guero down on Whittier Boulevard, I know better. I have learned.
In L.A., which is home to many thousands of emigrants from Guadalajara and its state of Jalisco, the style of a tortas ahogadas specialist turns out to be as unbending as the form of the sandwich itself. The restaurant will be decorated with posters and paraphernalia of Chivas, the soccer team beloved by Guadalajara’s working class, and it will probably offer huge, griddle-toasted tacos stuffed with lamb barbacoa. The refrigerator will be stocked with imported, Mexican-issue Squirt and Coke in addition to the usual Penafiel sodas. If you’re lucky, there will also be mango-flavored Boing, and the eggy, burnt Tapatio custard called jericalla for dessert. The guy taking the orders will slap his head in disbelief if a gabacho happens to order a torta ahogada, even in a restaurant that sells nothing else, but the sandwich will hit your table in 30 seconds flat — usually one or two notches less spicy than you think you want it but with a heat that gradually builds to a dull, throbbing roar. Cutlery will be offered to you, with a look of polite condescension you may recognize if you’ve ever been handed a fork in a Chinese restaurant. The tortas ahogadas will be as correct as the colors on the Mexican flag.
Where do you find tortas ahogadas? Wherever Jalisco émigrés live.
Tortas Ahogadas Las Originales, one of a slick chain with branches scattered around the northwest San Fernando Valley, is a gentle, user-friendly place whose tortas ahogadas are accessible to beginners. They’re gently spiced — unless you ask them to crank up the heat — made with well-herbed carnitas, crisp at the edges, which would taste just as good on a taco, and served on a crunchy roll with the tang of a good sourdough baguette. A few blocks away, in San Fernando, Tortas Ahogadas Beto is an earthier café run by a guy from the Guadalajara suburb Zapopan, its walls dedicated to the rival Atlas instead of to Chivas, but the birote, although glazed with a thick, shiny mantle of chile, is hard and bland, dissolving within moments. Nearby Tacos Los Toritos has a basic fast-food take on the sandwich: superporky, not bad, but perhaps not worth a drive.
La Chiva Loca may serve the most “authentic’’ of the sandwiches: dense bread, juicy carnitas, tart onions plopped with a full pint of sauce into a thin plastic bag tucked into a wicker basket, a style of service familiar to anyone who has ever eaten street food in Mexico.
Even better are the sandwiches at Tortas Ahogadas GDL in a Bell Gardens strip mall. GDL flaunts not only a decade of Chivas posters but a brace of signed jerseys, souvenir pencils and a rack of uniforms for sale; micheladas made with the salted plum essence chamoy; and a beautiful plate of melted cheese, queso fundido, layered with meaty, Jalisco-style chorizo. Guadalajara-style electropop bounces out of the music store a couple doors down. The tortas ahogadas, as you might expect, are textbook, crackling crust tapering to a pleasant French dip squish; richness sliced through by the sharply pungent chile dearbol.
But the best in town are without question at Chago Ahogadas, a satellite of one of the better-regarded tortas ahogadas restaurants in Guadalajara itself. The birotes are baked on premises, the roasted pork is both crisp and succulent, and the complex intensity of the chile works its way into your brain like the wobbly hook of a Dr. Dre song. In Guadalajara, Chago may be best known for its twisted Happy Days aesthetic: tables fitted inside pink Cadillacs and retrofitted school buses; sassy waitresses; and doo-wop hits on the stereo. On Whittier Boulevard, just a few blocks from dance halls where the Blendells and Thee Midnighters once played, the magnificent torta ahogada is enough.
CHAGO AHOGADAS: 6426 Whittier Blvd., East L.A. (323) 838-5943, chagoahogadas.com.mx.
EL VAQUERO: 14 S. Fremont Ave., Alhambra. (626) 458-4546.
LA CHIVA LOCA: 7952 Firestone Blvd., Downey. (562) 622-2729.
TACOS LOS TORITOS: 13060 Glenoaks Blvd., Sylmar. (818) 367-7153.
TORTAS AHOGADAS BETO: 209 N. Chatsworth Drive, San Fernando. (818) 837-3177.
TORTAS AHOGADAS EL GUERO: 4508 Whittier Blvd., E.L.A. (323) 262-8900.
TORTAS AHOGADAS GDL: 6810 S. Eastern Ave., Bell Gardens. (323) 771-1924, tortasahogadasgdl.com.
TORTAS AHOGADAS LAS ORIGINALES: 11541 Laurel Canyon Blvd., San Fernando. (818) 361-7793.