Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Best Tortas in Denver: Las Tortugas


I think that on his L.A. show a couple years ago Anthony Bourdain talks about his confusion about finding good food in strip malls. It makes sense, because Bourdain lives in New York City, where strip malls are not that common. I am from Chicago myself, where strip malls are also somewhat rare. Actually, I have always looked down on strip malls, because on the rare occasion that I found myself at one, it was usually full of sterile chain restaurants. So I understand how strange it is to find good, unique, diverse ethnic food in the mass-produced, uniform and forgettable entity that is the strip mall. And in Denver, much like in L.A., there is a lot of good to be found in the strip mall.

So it should come as no surprise that a couple of weeks ago I found myself sitting at Las Tortugas, waiting for some food and staring out a window at a parking lot. That’s right, I was in a strip mall. Again. For some reason I had a strong urge for a most unholy Mexican sandwich: the Torta Cubana. And as all my decision making is uninfluenced by television, it is an eerie coincidence that a week or two before my craving Mr. Bourdain aired a television show in San Francisco where he was filmed eating a certain large, greasy sandwich of the same name.

Las Tortugas has, by my count, the best tortas in Denver. The Tortugas on Alameda near Tejon is my favorite only because for the longest time they didn’t even have a sign. The building is in a small strip mall or sorts (of course it is) with something like three parking spaces and absolutely no indications outside (like a sign) that there was anything inside open for business, yet it was always packed. In fact, the way I learned about it was from the guy who sold me my washing machine, and he had to describe exactly what color it was and what the two shops next to it were so that I could triangulate and find it.

Ever since then I have been going back with some regularity. This day I found myself waiting in the Aurora branch, which I think has always had a sign, but still sits tucked away in the far corner of a strip mall on Peoria and Del Mar. In more efforts not to draw too much attention to itself, the words “Las Tortugas” are noticably absent from the marquee that lists all the other shops at the strip mall. I don’t know what the owner has against a little marketing, but he certainly hasn’t seemed to need it. Make food this good and the people will find you.

Ten minutes later and I was still waiting. At Las Tortugas, which means “the turtles”, the sandwich makers, or “torteros”, take their sweet time. It seems like it should be fast but it isn’t. Not really sure why. When watching the torteros at work (easily spotted by their t-shirts which all say TORTERO on the back) they seem to be moving pretty fast and have some efficient-looking torta-making stations set up on the grill and counter. The system looks flawless. And the end product is pretty much that. Just slow.

Oh well, no use wondering about it. My agua fresca was ready. Agua fresca, or fresh water, is any combination of fresh fruit or vegtables blended up with ice. I ordered, and always order, a Crazy Agua, which is pineapple, strawberry and orange. All blended fresh. I walked slowly back up to the counter to pick it up. The restaurant itself has a great Mexico City vibe besides the laid back tortero dudes taking their time. The walls are decorated with large black and white photos of Mexico City street scenes, Spanish is the only language being spoken, a soccer game plays out on television, a banner of the owner’s favorite soccer team hangs over the counter, bracelets are being sold next to the cash register and beneath that is a vibrant display of fresh fruit.

Back at my stool I place my crazy water on the stainless steel counter top and reflect some more on strip malls, lechón, TV—you know—the big, important themes of life. Several more minutes pass, ten to be more or less exact, and my name is being called again up front. My Cubana is ready. I am hungry, which is good, because my sandwich is huge. Let me give you a visual:
/ Grilled Bread (in butter) \
- Mayo
- Avocado
- Chipotles (or optional jalapenos)
- Onion and tomato
- Melted Cheese #1
- Grilled Chorizo
- Fried Egg
- Deli Ham (also fried on grill)
- Melted Cheese #2
- Grilled Pierna (Pork Chop)
- Grilled Milanesa (strip steak)
- 2 hot dogs, charred, sliced into halves
- Refried beans
\ The other slice of bread, also grilled in butter /

and a Second Visual...

I did mention already that this was a most unholy sandwich. If this creation sort of scares you, that is understandable, and know that the rest of the Tortuga menu is filled with much more reasonable and equally delicious tortas. The Cubana is something I crave about once a year. It feels like Thanksgiving after you are done, but greasier and with hot dogs. I don’t think I need to describe how it tastes. It tastes fucking amazing. When I finished my sandwich, and yes, I finished my sandwich, I sat in my car for a good 10 minutes thinking, “Why did I finish my sandwich?” I felt like vomiting a little, but in a good way. I felt happy and sated yet moaned in pain. So I sat in my car looking out over pavement, parked cars and anonymous store fronts watching the sun settle in behind the clouds until I could move enough to start my engine, engage the clutch and drive away.
Las Tortugas has at least two Denver-area locations for your convenient enjoyment. D-town: 1549 W Alameda, A-Town: 712 Peoria St and somewhere in Commerce City I think.

Las Tortugas Aurora on Urbanspoon

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