Sandwich overboard: the "drowning torta"
From the archives: This story was original posted 6.14.2011
I went to Guadalajara, Mexico to visit a tequila distillery a few months ago and came back with nothing but a certain “drowned” sandwich on my mind. I drank a lot throughout that trip, therefore I ate a lot!
In Guadalajara and its surrounding cities, there was a torta ahogada shop on almost every single block of town. In Alhambra, we’re lucky enough to have just one: El Vaquero Restaurant on Fremont.
East Los Angeles has been in somewhat of a torta ahogada revolution lately. Tortas Ahogadas “El Guero” on Whittier Boulevard is dangerously close to my house, and there is another ahogada shop on Third Street within walking distance across the Maravilla Gold Line Station.
And why not? Hell, the torta ahogada is basically the pride and joy of Guadalajara...in sandwich form. A working class beauty enjoyed by everyone in town, equally satiating the hungers of both executives and high school kids alike.
What exactly is so special about it? Well, it’s literally a torta ahogada ("drowned" torta). Just imagine a Mexican torta sandwich if it had tripped and accidentally fell into a pool of delicious — albeit ridiculously spicy — smooth salsa of fresh tomatoes and toasted chile de arbol (which literally translates to "tree chile!") The rest is simple: stuffed with a scant layer of refried beans and freshly-braised carnitas, topped with a prodigious handful of thinly sliced pickled onions, then finally dunked, sauced and smothered in a whole lot of that signature salsa.
The husband and wife owners of El Vaquero, Malaquias and Irma Vasques, are both proud Tapatios (not the hot sauce, but the people from Jalisco, where Guadalajara is the state capital). They bought the restaurant 10 years ago and steered it into the right direction after finding out that the old torta dealers were actually from Chihuahua and NOT Jalisco. “Its like a Mexican selling Salvadorean pupusas, it didn't taste right!” Irma joked. Her husband Malaquias is in charge of the El Sereno outpost of El Vaquero, while she stays and cooks at the Alhambra location.
The bread that is used is a lot sturdier than your standard-issue torta bread, and it's especially good because Malaquias’s brother makes it himself; he has a bakery of his own. No fluffy birote or bolillo roll here. Instead, it’s the exclusive pan salado that is more like a French baguette. So don’t think soggy mush, instead think spongy, chewy wholesome bread marinated in a tasty sauce
I stopped in for lunch with an old friend I hadn't talked to in years — what better way to reconnect than over a torta ahogada right? The tiny restaurant only seats about a dozen or so, and my friend and I weren't the only ones who thought a torta sounded good for lunch. Sitting across from us were two rowdy gardeners probably on their way to San Marino.
My friend and I shared their specialties: a torta ahogada bien picosa (their highest level of spiciness) and a couple tacos dorados de barbacoa, which are lightly-greased, griddled tacos filled with seasoned braised beef, adorned simply with raw chopped onions and their fiery tomatillo salsa.
And judging by the minimal conversation between me and my friend once the food arrived until the time it was gone — less than 15 minutes — it was pretty good. See, when food is blindingly spicy like this, it defies the normal laws of "getting full." You just can't stop eating until it's all gone. The barbacoa was tender enough and the salsa was enlivened a bit with some oregano. It wasn't the best I've had but not bad nonetheless.
For dessert, we shared yet another prideful Jalisco treat, a "Jericalla." It’s basically their answer to crème brûlée, except here, it has a little cinnamon. And in authentic crème brûlée fashion, the best part is the thin caramelized layer up top.
El Vaquero Restaurant: 14 S. Fremont Ave, Alhambra, CA