Las Tortas (as efficiently and aptly named as the EatBar) has a prime location as a Mexican restaurant being that is across the street from the Mexican Consulate; but otherwise is easy to miss, tucked in a little strip mall on the busy road linking Central Denver to many of Aurora's ethnic gems.
Allow me to briefly digress and reflect upon torta bread yet again. As you may well know, getting proper torta bread in the US is for some reason a difficult process. I went into the too-hard versus too-soft bread here, and am still flabbergasted that no one has been able to make proper torta bread in Denver-- that is, an oval-shaped bread that is lightly crusty and crispy on the outside, soft and airy on the inside.
The guy working that night explained to me that yes, the owners were from Guadalajara, and that they indeed did originally try making their own bread but in the end couldn't get it quite right. He skillfully evaded my questions about where the bread for Las Tortas' drowned sandwiches is from, although I'm certain it was just a simple (though well executed) loaf of French bread.
The torta ahogada is an experience in temperature and textures as much as it is in taste and heat. Inside the room temperature bread were steaming hot carnitas and beans. The sauce that covered everything was also room temperature, and the bounty of vinegar-and-lime-soaked onions on top was cold.
The first bite was incredible: the cold to hot temperatures, the crunch of the onions and bread, the soft middle filled with incredibly tender carnitas which were in themselves exquisite; the tart, powerful onions; and the suprisingly acidic, thin, watery sauce covering everything. And although the bread and thick layer of meat balanced it out well, there was still the lingering but pleasing flavor of the piquant sauce.
The sauce is most certainly made with tons of vinegar and a good amount of garlic. It is typically made with a base of dried chiles de arbol, which when fresh look like serranos but pack more heat. That seems about right for this sandwich, because I asked for spicy and was not disappointed: it made sweat drip down the nape of my neck and I could still feel it on my lips half-an-hour later.
Now I am all about getting my hands in my food and my food all over my face, but this sandwich had a look at first like it should be eaten with a fork and knife. I grabbed a plastic fork and a couple of napkins and almost broke the tines trying to dig in. That's all the clue I needed, and I went back for a dozen more napkins (this was sure to get ugly), sat down, grabbed it with my clumsy hands and got to work. I gave up trying to keep my hands and face clean, and I smiled masochistically as the sauce burned my lips, cheeks and chin.
The aftermath of one friend's battle with the torta ahogada
The other Torta Ahogada on the menu is the Torta Gema, which using the same bread and delicious carnitas as the traditional one, is also filled with mayonnaise, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos. It too is drowning, but it a wonderful creamy chipotle sauce.
Equally as messy but uniformly warm in temperature and mild in spiciness, it is a much more familiar, comfortable flavor for the typical American palate. And while I prefer the traditional version, don't get me wrong, this is an incredible "gem" of a sandwich, just look at this bite, thick with carnitas and oozing chipotle sauce:
By my second trip to Las Tortas, I had mastered the torta ahogada technique of getting one hand completely messy while keeping the other available for drinking, wiping and spooning on more sauce. If you're not up for the mess (though you really should be) then Las Tortas also has a full menu of the cleverly named usual torta suspects. I tried the Lambada, named for the sexy Brazilian dance, complete with chorizo (sausage), huevos (eggs) and pierna (leg of pork). It was very good, but seemed plain next to its smothered and drowning friends.
As a bonus, Las Tortas serves beer and margaritas. As another bonus, the interior decor of Las Tortas is in stark contrast to its run-down exterior. Even the most germaphobic gringo would feel comfortable with the cleanliness in general, and with its clean, modern design. Yet another bonus is something that flies in the face of what I wrote once about being able to distinguish an authentic Mexican restaurant by their use of giant styrofoam cups. At Las Tortas, they have eco-friendly plastic disposable cups (though I'm not even sure how that is possible) that they fill with aguas de horchata, jamaica (hibiscus) and tamarind. But since they do serve alcohol, I'm going to stick with an eco-friendly glass bottle of Pacifico.
See you at Las Tortas, Denver's go-to for Tortas Ahogadas.