To me, the torta is one of the most perfect sandwiches of all time. I certainly can’t deny the brilliance of a juicy BLT, or even the gloriousness of a simple PB&J (properly ratio-ed 2:1 peanut butter to jelly, of course), but a torta takes the one genre of food that almost always sounds amazing to me no matter my mood or degree of hunger (Mexican) and layers it all into one amazing sandwich.
First: What is a torta? It’s a sandwich made with Mexican ingredients. Second: Why is it so perfect? All of the toppings. All of them. You can put so many things onto a torta and they totally work.
Spreadable things like refried beans, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, and so on can be layered together without creating a sandwich so tall you’re forced to resort to a knife and fork. Soft things like cheese, delicious pickled things, and grilled vegetables get piled on without making the sandwich squish too much when you bite it. And don’t forget crispy additions like fresh veggies, fried meats, and so on that tie it all together. But most importantly, you can make it any way you like it, so let’s dive in and build this torta:
1. The bread.
Tortas are traditionally made on rolls—usually round, but I’ve seen some that are sort of sub-shaped as well. The roll should have a nice crust, but not be overly crisp—it should be chewy and glossy, and the inside should be pillowy soft. It’s worth the extra effort to find a Mexican bakery near you if you can and buy some of these rolls—they are sturdy enough to hold the fillings, but soft enough that they’re easy to bite when the time comes.
2. The spreads and sauces.
This could be anything and everything you want in the vein of Mexican food. Here are some of my faves (to mix and match with the other toppings you choose):
- Refried beans (pinto or black, and a great way to use up leftovers of either, I might add)
- Hot sauce
- Sour cream
- Queso sauce
- Salsa (I especially love the kick and tang of a salsa verde layered in with other stuff)
- Mashed chipotles in adobo
While avocado isn’t really a sauce, now is the time to add it. It’s best to keep the soft ingredients together so that the torta doesn’t squish out the back when you’ve bitten in.
3. The protein.
While there’s enough toppings to go a protein-less route, this is the part of the sandwich that defines it, for me. I either like to choose something soft and slow-cooked or something crispy and crunchy. This is another amazing way to use up leftovers from another meal (I know you love 'em, but no need to do tacos three nights in a row).
- Crispy chicken cutlet (which you’ll see on torta menus everywhere as Milaneza)
- Albondigas (meatballs)
- Eggs (hard boiled, fried, or scrambled)
- Braised anything (chicken thighs, pork shoulder, and short ribs are a few of my faves for torta-ing)
- Marinated tofu
- Ham or bacon
- Grilled shrimp
- Chorizo (either in the casing or loose and ground, in which case it’s like a Mexican sloppy Joe)
4. The cheese.
I would say you can leave this off (and really, you can), but cheeses of all kind are the glue to this torta: Melty cheese helps hold things together, and softer cheese can be spread or crumbled for fun textures. Don’t forget the cheese sauce I nudged you toward up above. And if you’re super queso-crazy, using lots of cheese is a great way to go the vegetarian route. Some of my suggestions aren’t super traditional but provide all the necessary, cheesy awesomeness that makes a torta great.
- Goat cheese
- Queso fresco
- Any of those super-firm cheeses you can grill/cook without melting (like Halloumi)
5. The veggies and other toppings.
The final topping of a great torta is all your favorite veggies. Cooked veg have some serious plusses (grill mark char, anyone?), but I really adore the crispness that raw veggies contribute. And don’t forget pickles. The acidity can add so much to any sandwich.
- Grilled anything: poblanos, onions, mushrooms, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, nopales.
- Roasted anything (many of the same suggestions from above, but nixing the romaine and adding in potatoes)
- Raw, chopped up anything: jalapeños (my always, always addition), lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, green onion, cilantro, avocado.
- Pickled anything: jalapeños (or any other pepper), ONIONS (my always, always addition #2), nopales, tomatoes.
- Squeeze of citrus: lime, lemon, or grapefruit.
6. Warm it up—or don't.
While there are some tortas that are served cold or at room temp, they can also be warmed up. How you heat it depends on your fillings: For example, you might griddle or panini-press it for something more like a Cuban sandwich. Or you might toast the bread, pile on the cold toppings, then finish it with the warm protein. Or you might throw the whole thing, open faced, into the oven and let it toast all together. Do what your heart and stomach tell you, and you won’t be led astray.
Photos by James Ransom