A Mouthful of Mexico: Tortas Ahogadas

Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, Lake Chapala, Mexico

Torta Ahogada

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.

Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, Lake Chapala, Mexico

Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, Lake Chapala, Mexico

Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, Lake Chapala, Mexico

Tortas Ahogadas El Gordo, Lake Chapala, Mexico

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rebeca February 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I love the creepy smiling pig… if only he knew!

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2 Renee February 12, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Indeed. 🙂

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3 Rob February 12, 2013 at 4:55 pm

mmm… that looks delicious. Made my mouth water reading this post! I am just the opposite 75% meat 20 % veg and 5% rice, as Emeril Lagasse says “pork fat rules”

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4 Renee February 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Rob, in that case, get thee to Mexico! You’ll absolutely love it here.

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5 Susan, Real Family Travel February 12, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Oh, we LOVE the smiling pig! I think the meat quality has everything to do with timing. We’ve never gotten a bad batch from them, but we’ve also never gotten the tortas. In fact, we have some leftovers in the fridge. Might use them to season some beans this week. yummmmm

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6 Renee February 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

Yes, agreed about the timing, though it’s not always obvious (to me anyway) what the optimum time to stop by actually is. I’ve got half a mind to start tracking the time of the visit and the corresponding meat quality. Then I can post the shattering results as a follow-up post hat will be useful to no one but you and me.

Also once my Spanish improves I’m going to grill the owner about what cuts of pork he uses for his carnitas. Then I can start making special requests.

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7 Living Outside of the Box February 13, 2013 at 1:43 am

Oooh…that IS a seriously creepy pig! Your torta ahogada looks much better than the one time I’ve tried it (with the Whiteheads, in fact). Ours had just cold flavorless sauce and no spicy kick. I maxed out with 2 bites. Nope–not for me!

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8 Renee February 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Alisa, that is 100% what I thought too. I’m slowly coming around, but it’s essential to have a good one. And the torta MUST have heat, whether it’s served with one spicy sauce or two sauces you doctor separately. After eating (a few bites of) the first (and worst) one, I though “never again.” But now I’m curious to try more.

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9 Rhonda @Laugh Quotes February 14, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Surprisingly, I had never heard of Tortas Ahogadas before this post, but my niece, visiting from the states and reading over my shoulder immediately said, “Yum, I love Totras” when she saw the first sign photo. Yesterday we had pulled pork sandwiches with a coleslaw which had some pickles – sounds a bit like what you describe but I am very sure that kiwis cannot make good Mexican food.

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10 Renee February 21, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Ugh, your comments were in my spam folder. So sorry about that.

Have you been to Mexico yet?

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11 Mexico Cooks! September 11, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Hey Ramblecrunch…if you haven’t seen the September 7, 2013 article on Mexico Cooks!, you need to take a look. Hog heaven!

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