Tortas Jalisco

[Tortas Jalisco][1], 3300 W. 6th, Lawrence Meet The Torta The world's largest torta weighed 650 pounds. A few weeks ago the first national Torta Festival was held in Mexico City. Torterias, the places where one gets tortas, are multiplying rapidly in Florida, Texas and California, popping up even in Omaha, Memphis and Lawrence, Kansas. The French, of course, are somehow involved--they brought the baguettes.Mexicans were introduced to European-style breads and pastries when the French invaded Mexico in the mid-1800s. Tough and ever-resourceful, the Mexicans soon booted their over-dressed invaders, but kept the baguettes. The torta, you see, is a sandwich.The Torta Ahogada (Smothered Sandwich) contains carnitas--tender chunks of slow-cooked pork--a slathering of the lightest, most delicate refried beans I have ever tasted, a scattering of onions and cilantro, all smothered with an assertive salsa. The Torta de Tinga (a style of spicy braise, or stew), features chicken and yellow onions marinated in vinegar and more than a few chipotle peppers (dried and smoked jalapenos). The Cubana, one of the world's great sandwiches, is composed of roast pork shoulder, ham, beans, lettuce and tomatoes; and the Milanesa, another classic, features "chicken-fried" steak dressed with beans and guacamole (Milanesa: of Milan = breaded). There are eight tortas on the Tortas Jalisco menu, costing no more than $5.50, each imbued with its own personality and all made with fresh, flavorful ingredients. They come warm and neatly paper-wrapped--stick-to-your-ribs sandwiches, fuel for hard work or dreamless sleep. Behind The Torta Bread is the secret behind every good sandwich, and while tortas are occasionally made on baguettes, the softer bolillo (a crusty roll), or the flatter telera (torpedo-shaped), are the breads of choice in modern Mexico. Angel Alvarez and his wife Laura Romero, the duenos of Tortas Jalisco, buy their telera from Panaderia Azteca in Olathe. "I tried many panaderias (bakeries); Azteca was the best," says Alvarez. "That bread!" intones Jim Baker, food writer for the Lawrence Journal World.Angel Alvarez is from the state of Jalisco, land of Guadalajara and Tequila. After ten years in southern California and four years in Lawrence, he speaks English without a hitch. Laura Romero is from Puebla, a town that Diana Kennedy (that great scholar of Mexican foodways), called "a wellspring of culture." For Mexican Art and artists, and cooks in particular, Puebla is both laboratory and gallery.For ten months, Alvarez and Romero have cooked quietly together, in remarkable harmony, crafting skillful tipicas--the "typical" (street) foods of Mexico--while charming Lawrence's underground cognoscenti with the heartfelt gift that is Mexican hospitality. Even as the secret of Tortas Jalisco's existence unravels and the line of devoted customers grows longer, it seems unlikely the spirit of Tortas Jalisco will change. Tortas Jalisco is a family affair, simple and clean, unmarred by pretension and affectation. And the homey touches make all the difference: food served on brightly colored ceramic plates--not plastic or cardboard--little compotes of salsa presented with each order, the obligatory mural rendered with colors straight from the can (saguaros and twilight buttes and mesas), and the warmth with which customers of all stripes are welcomed.Alvarez and Romero work their magic six days a week in a gas station on the west side of town.Mas Que Tortas The soft tacos really turned me on. Little coaster-sized corn tortillas, one dollar each, graced with a dice of perfectly fried whitefish (catfish?), or an alchemic adobada of pork, an adobada being a baroque braise of onions and mild, earthy chiles. The dinner platters ($5.99-$7.99) are obvious labors of love. Enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, chimichangas, tostaditas--the greatest hits of Mexican cooking, so often compromised in this country by heavy hands, insensitive palates and too much salt. Tortas Jalisco's renderings of these classic dishes are light, full of flavor and carefully presented, emphatically refuting the American notion that Mexican food is more about bulk than nuance.Menudo, that unique stew of tripe (the lining of a cow's stomach), oft maligned--there are few foods as nasty as bad menudo--is a revelatory experience when well-made. On the occasional weekends when Alvarez and Romero prepare their menudo, local Latino families line up, bringing vessels from home for take-out. Menudo's curative power is well-known in Mexico, particularly as a sure-fire cure for hangover. On one weekend morning visit, I noticed several wretched-looking college students bravely stepping into the menudo line: "I swear, dude, it really works." If you're not up for the menudo experience, try the tight and tasty breakfast menu: eggs to order, breakfast burritos, omelets and the Mexican-style eggs, a first-rate scramble of onions chorizo, jalapenos and tomatoes, served with rice and beans ($4.99).Encantada A torteria or a taqueria is nearly always an informal place, a humble operation, usually family-owned and operated. You find them in strip malls, parking lots, roach coaches and, sometimes, in gas stations. I've come across a few excellent gas station eateries in my time; Oklahoma Joe's (BBQ) in Kansas City comes immediately to mind, a Korean place in Los Angeles.... I'm a sucker for hidden treasures, of beauties discovered in unlikely places. Tortas Jalisco is located in the Phillips 66 near 6th and Kasold. The flag of Mexico hangs beside the U.S. flag in the front window, next to Joe Camel and Little Debbie. People of every kind--Latino laborers, good ol' boys in bulbous pick-ups, starchy suits and scruffy students, rednecks and dreadheads, all colors, all classes--they come, they eat well for little, they catch the vibe and leave smiling and satisfied. Ain't that America? [1]: http://www2.lawrence.com/places/torta...

Comments

lazz 10 years ago

are saying this joint is as good as Border Bandido????

GREAT piece, Tom. Can't wait to try this place. Been meaning to for months, THANKS for the reminder. This has got to the biggest trade-up in the history of gas-station restaurants -- Taco John's to delicious family-made & authentic...

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tomking 10 years ago

Thanks, friends, for your kind comments. Your checks are in the mail.

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jay_holley 10 years ago

It's good to see Tortas Jalisco getting attention -- it's locale is a bit unusual, but the food really is a treat. Nice review, Tom.

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Patrick Quinn 10 years ago

TK--

There are some excellent writers on this site... but yr the best. Nice piece xoxopq

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