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Sandwich overboard: the "drowning torta"


El Vaquero Restaurant

14 S. Fremont Ave
Alhambra , CA 91801 United States

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

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8 thoughts on “Sandwich overboard: the "drowning torta"”

  1. I wish El Vaquero was open later! Big fan of the food at this restaurant, and I love that it's being covered by The Source. I often worry that there's not enough business here, so I really hope they get a lot of community support from this story running.

  2. AMAZING!!! Best Mexican Restaurant I’ve been too. Great Food, Great Service, Great Prices…I couldn’t decide on what to order, everything on the menu sounded so delicious and authentic. Me and my husban ordered 3 different plates. The torta ahogada, tacos de barbacoa dorados and sopes. All three were the best I’ve ever had. They took me right back to Guadalajara. In a scale 1-10 I would score my whole experience at El Vaquero a 10+. Check it out!! I guarentee you’ll enjoy it very much.

  3. Stopped in yesterday, my son and I had the Tortas Ahogadas with with the spiciest of sauces. Torta was really good, sauce was REALLY hot, but I like hot & spicy.

  4. Estos si son los tacos dorados de barbacoa como los que comi en guadalajara, estan deliciosos. Les recomiendo probar el mole de espinazo, es algo espectacular, y no se diga la torta ahogada; nos hace recordar nuestro querido terre. Definitivamente se los recomiendo. Por cierto el encargado y yo nos parecemos un poco.

  5. Estos son los autenticos tacos dorados de barbacoa,yo no pense encontrarlos por aca.Vayan y disfrutenlos asi como el mole de espinazo que tienen, esta delicioso, y no se diga las tortas, esas si que estan como para acordarte del terre.

  6. Jeanette Pacheco

    Jaliscan food mmmmm delightful, thanks for sharing…one of these days for sure I am going to prepare the drowned tortas using your recommendations…thanks!!

  7. Presley's Pantry

    I love seeing reviews of places on the eastside! I’m in LOVE with tortas… I guess I’ll make it my business to try this local treasure…. I know exactly where it’s at. Thanx for sharing.

  8. um, take me now.