When you explore the Guadalajara area, you can’t help but notice the Tortas Ahogadas signs all over the place. They’re absolutely everywhere. Plastic banners strung up over open-air restaurants. Hand-written signs tacked to vendor carts. Brightly colored lettering painted on building exteriors. In this part of Mexico, you can’t throw a dead cat (or in this case a pig) without hitting someone hawking Tortas Ahogadas.
Aptly named “drowned sandwich,” the ubiquitous Torta Ahogada is Guadalajara’s signature dish. (Fanatics claim you can’t get a good one anywhere else in Mexico.) The concept is deceptively simple. Take a crusty bread-roll, slice it open from one side only, stuff it with pork carnitas, and then drown the whole thing in spicy tomato sauce. (Or a sweet tomato sauce with a second, spicy sauce.) Throw on a few pickled onions and a little shredded cabbage, and you’re good to go.
But as with any simple dish, lots of factors need to come together to push this sandwich from meh to great.
- The quality of the bread. It’s made with a birote salado, a bread roll unique to this area. Slightly salty, it’s crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Remember, it’s got to stand up to all that sauce without dissolving into mush.
- The quality of the pork carnitas. This makes or breaks the sandwich. Are the carnitas mushy or crispy? Tender or dry? Flavorful or bland? I’ve gotten dry, fibrous pork I could barely chew. But I’ve also encountered tender, flavorful meat that made my mouth sing.
- The sauces. Are they balanced properly, with the right amount of tomato, ground arbol chilies, vinegar, garlic, and oregano?
When we first arrived in Mexico, it was difficult to get super excited about Tortas Ahogadas. First off, it’s a lot of meat for me. Too much really. I’m more of an Asian-style carnivore, approaching meat like it’s a condiment. My ideal meal is about 75% vegetables, 20% rice, and maybe 5% meat. So, take what I say about tortas with a grain of salt. But if you love copious amounts of pork, then this is the sandwich for you.
My other issue is that tortas ahogadas can be messy and hard to eat. Surprisingly, like the the-hot dog in America, they are the de-facto food at football games, something I can’t imagine to save my life. Seriously. Being wedged inside a football stadium with tens of thousands of screaming sports fans, balancing a sauce-laden plate precariously in my lap, and feeling all that sauce running down my arms and into my sleeves? No thanks. When I order a torta ahogada, I prefer to A) sit a a table and B) get the sauce on the side, like a French dip.
Yesterday Mark and I ate at a local place, Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, with its creepy smiling-pig sign.
This place intrigues me because they’ve served us BOTH the heavenly, moist pork AND that pork’s evil twin, the terrible, fibrous, dry version. Maybe it’s has to do with what time of day we drop by and how long the meat has been cooking, I don’t know. I like that they give me the sauce on the side (see photo below), and that they serve two separate sauces…an incredibly fresh tomato sauce, along with a muy-picante spicy version. That way I have total control and can tinker with my sandwich until it’s just right.