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New Orleans embraces Mexican sandwiches 

South of the Po-border

Taqueria Sanchez

46 West Bank Expwy., Gretna, 361-3050; 2633 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 467-1449; 4432 South I-10 Service Road, Metairie, 883-2649

Taqueria Chilangos

2723 Roosevelt Blvd., Kenner, 905-9933

Tacos San Miguel

3517 20th St., Metairie, 267-4027;

Taqueria Guerrero

208 N. Carrollton Ave., 484-6959

click to enlarge Taqueria Chilangos toasts bread for torta sandwiches. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The taqueria and its mobile spinoff, the taco truck, have created a tortilla-based society, with most of the fare cradled, folded, wrapped or scattered over some kind of flour or corn tortilla. Among such choices, the torta is a rebel, and an unexpectedly adventurous option.

  A torta is a Mexican sandwich made on big, doughy rolls or lengths of sandwich bread like any other sub. Into it go the same meats, beans, vegetables, cheeses and salsas that fill other taqueria items, but the torta is as different from a burrito as a quesadilla is from an enchilada, and it answers a different type of craving.

  The best torta places split the roll and grill both the interior and exterior of both halves. This creates four butter-crisp layers, adding texture and structure for the avalanche of soft and juicy fillings.

  For those accustomed to po-boys and deli sandwiches, this adds up to quite a different taste. Instead of mayonnaise, there's sour cream; instead of pickles, squeezes of fresh lime. Spicy heat comes from salsas that are usually thin, green and very hot. For the main event, the torta packs crunchy, chewy bits of beef (fajita), soft pork with grilled pineapple and onion (el pastor), or whatever else taqueria cooks have on hand. A smear of black bean paste underneath is typical.

  There is a full-blown craze for tortas in cities with better-established Mexican communities, and they're even the centerpiece of the menu at celebrity chef Rick Bayless' latest Chicago restaurant, XOCO. Pre-Katrina, the torta was found locally at only a few suburban outposts, but the influx of Latinos and subsequent rise of taquerias around town have made tortas more accessible than ever.

  The rapid proliferation of Taqueria Sanchez locations has helped propagate the torta, which are served at its restaurants in Kenner and Metairie, its Gretna walk-up window and its taco truck, usually parked on Elysian Fields Avenue near North Claiborne Avenue. In Mid-City, Taqueria Guerrero is another good spot to try tortas, especially with the meaty, lean carnitas that tastes like cochon de lait. It's evident no one is making a killing on these sandwiches, which run about $5 and are quite filling.

  Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner makes my favorite torta, but that may be due to a local bias. Proprietor David Montes uses po-boy bread instead of the standard, oblong, sweeter-tasting torta bread. It gives the torta a stronger, denser, chewier frame, and marries well with the abundant meats.

  Tacos San Miguel has the most impressive selection of fillings, with such uncommon entries as tripe or rajas, a hash of roasted poblano peppers and mild panela cheese. I find tongue and the soft, salsa-soaked chicharrons too mushy inside the bread, and prefer meats with more of a grilled edge, like chicken with a smoky guajillo pepper sauce.

  No matter what the choice, Tacos San Miguel gets the award for most sloppy torta. The addition of crumbled white farmers cheese and a ladle of crema makes for a delicious but drippy mess. It's almost enough to make one wish for a good, stout tortilla to hold it together after all. On the other hand, certain po-boys are judged by the number of napkins they require, so maybe this town is ready to tackle untidy tortas.

click to enlarge cuis_lead-1.jpg

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