But while banh mi, Italian-style hoagies, meatball grinders and even the Uruguayan chivito have had their moment in the spotlight, the torta, a traditional Mexican sandwich and staple of West Coast taquerias and food trucks, toils here in relative obscurity.
The torta should be an instant favorite. It starts with the bread. Traditionally, either a round, thin-crusted and soft telera roll or a crusty, chewy and oblong bolillo roll is used. The two sides are buttered and lightly grilled.
After that, the chef’s prerogative comes into play, but a torta typically is slathered with mayonnaise, filled with refried beans and guacamole or sliced avocado, and piled high with seasoned meat or grilled, roasted and pickled vegetables.
If your first thought is that it sounds a bit like a taco sandwich, you aren’t entirely off-base, but at its best, a torta is more — big, hearty, indulgent and filling.
Luckily, there are a few places in town where you can grab a good torta. Here are a few worth noting:
Sergio Espana, a manager at the Gaithersburg restaurant that serves — you guessed it — tortas and tacos, doesn’t understand the lack of interest either. “I can’t explain the dearth of actual tortas in the area,” he says. “It should be such an obvious thing. And more so because people that are familiar with them really dig them.”
Plenty of folks in Gaithersburg are starting to become familiar with them: At Tortacos, sales of tortas ($6.50) just about equal those of their better-known cousin. Tortacos’ options include marinated chicken, marinated or braised pork, char-broiled steak and beef tongue. The hearty sandwiches are served dressed with beans, onions, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise.
“A torta is a very simple creature,” Espana explains. “It comes down to: Is the meat properly seasoned? Is the bread properly grilled with just a bit of butter? Is there avocado and beans?”
Logan Circle residents have a new option for tortas. The second outpost of Tortilla Coast opened there last week with a selection of tortas on the lunch menu. One option, the Torta de Pollo ($8.95), keeps things traditional with adobo-marinated grilled chicken, black beans, avocado, chipotle mayonnaise and Jack cheese, but two others offer alternate takes.
The Torta Ahogada ($8.95) brightens braised pork and black-bean-whipped mayo with pickled onions and a spicy arbol chili sauce that can be poured over the sandwich or used for dipping. The Torta de Vegetales ($7.95) is an option for the herbivores, filling the telera roll with roasted poblanos, shiitake mushrooms, carmelized onions, avocado, grilled zucchini and a sprinkling of Chihuahua cheese.
In Columbia Heights, neighborhood favorite Taqueria Distrito Federal offers grilled steak, chicken and ham tortas, but the menu standouts are a pair that add an extra level of indulgence to the sandwich: the Milanesa de Pollo and Milanesa de Res (both $7). Chicken and beef, respectively, are pounded flat, breaded and pan-fried. The rest of the sandwich follows normal torta conventions with crunchy bread, avocado, beans and cheese. But the extra crunch and fatty richness from the herb-infused breading take these sandwiches over the edge.