La Cubana – Tortas Boos Voni, Mission St, San Francisco, CA

I try to take all sandwich related requests and suggestions seriously, but time and opportunity often conspire to keep an establishment on the to-visit list for quite a while. Tortas Boos Voni is one such establishment: More than a year ago, I dined on a pair of tortas milanesa and began to think that there was a really special torta out there somewhere. In the comments, regular commentor Doug recommended Tortas Boos Voni. It was only last week that I visited, but mercy do I ever wish I’d gone sooner. Simply put, this was the best torta I’ve ever had. I decided to skip the milanesa and go for the cubana, simply because it’s a higher degree of difficulty. It includes two kinds of milanesa, that of beef and of chicken, as well as ham, hot dog, and a well spiced shredded chicken thigh, all in addition to the usual tomatoes, onion, and mayo.

Balance is important on a sandwich, but what the ideal sandwich really drives for is harmony. Balance is the easiest way to get there; making sure ingredients contrast each other and that one doesn’t stand too far above the others is an easy way of making sure everything works together. The route taken by sandwiches like the cubana is more challenging, but done right it’s perfectly effective. The recipe for the sandwich is meat, meat and more meat, but the harmony is there. The issue is that if something like this falls out of harmony, it’s a long way down. Should it go wrong, it is likely to go very, very wrong.

But the cubana at Tortas Boos Voni doesn’t go wrong. It’s worth noting that this was a massive sandwich, easily a foot long and more than six inches across, with no real taper to the bun. So you have a huge sandwich with five different kinds of meat; making this sandwich a success is not a task for beginners. Well, someone at Tortas Boos Voni has an experienced hand, because this was spectacular. Everything inside was hot and tender, the patties milanesa both crisp. The bread was well toasted and stayed crispy for the substantial length of time it took to eat the sandwich. There wasn’t enough avocado, the exact problem I had with the last cubana I ate, but it wasn’t enough to derail the overall quality. Given how good this sandwich and the one at Casita Chilanga were, I’m almost afraid of how good they would be if given a proper amount of avocado. That, I put it to you, is the mark of a good sandwich. It could be better, sure, but it’s a little scary to think about what that might mean.

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Torta Milanesa – Tacos Autlense, Story Rd, San Jose, CA

We return to the torta milanesa, previously seen herehere, and first here. I’m still searching for the perfect milanesa, and I’ve given up looking at counter-with-menu-board style establishments. There might be a winner out there, but I think I’m much more likely to find a long line of places with pre-fried ingredients getting soggy, waiting for me to show up. Better to go to an establishment with table service, wait a little longer, and get something made to order. That was what I got at Tacos Autlense, and it made a big difference. The beef was pounded incredibly thin, and if this was for reasons of cost control I’m not complaining. The result was an unbelievably crisp milanesa, with a deep brown crust. That was the high point of the sandwich, although the rest of it wasn’t bad at all. There was table cream, but not nearly so much as I found at Taqueria Tlaquepaque. It was just the right amount, with the creamy tang contrasting the well seasoned crisp of the steak quite well. The sandwich, like the one from Mexico Bakery, was primarily flavored by pickled jalapeño. That’s not a flavor I’m tremendously fond of, and the the vinegary heat kept me from enjoying the sandwich as much as I could. This same same sandwich presented with a good red sauce would be quite the number, I think. So it wasn’t a perfect torta, but it was a clear step up from some of the others I’ve had.

It occurs to me that I might be dooming myself to this sort of scenario. What are the odds that I manage to find a string of taquerias that builds ever slowly to a transcendent experience? It seems much more likely that I simple build a catalog of tortas eaten, they fall into some jumble of rankings, and an endless pile of “Good, but not great.” piles up. There are larger questions here that this sandwich doesn’t come close to settling, but I suppose that’s the world of sandwiches sometimes.

Carnitas Torta – Iguanas, S 3rd St, San Jose, CA

I try not to write too many negative reviews. I want people to come here for a celebration of sandwiches, not a festival of gripes. I’ve got a file full of sandwiches about which I didn’t have anything nice to say, so I didn’t say anything at all. But every so often a sandwich comes along that just strikes me the wrong way, something that I find genuinely offensive, and I feel compelled to tell others about it. This afterthought of a torta is one such sandwich.

Plenty of taquerias don’t pay much attention to their tortas. They’re focused on other things, and that’s only fair: In most taquerias, the torta isn’t the big seller. Luckily for these establishments, the torta is a forgivingly simple sandwich. It doesn’t require much effort or care. Good meat, good bread, a bit of cheese, avocado, or a tasty salsa, and there you go. The torta at Iguanas is a failure on all fronts. The bread, sliced down the middle, began to fall apart as soon as I picked it up. I’m not sure if it was old or improperly stored or the victim of some manner of hex, but it lacked all integrity and literally went to pieces on me. Sandwiches are held, as we all know, and it’s hard to enjoy one that’s making a quick escape from your grasp. The meat was dry and bland, part of the appeal of carnitas is the bark it develops in the second stage of cooking; roasted at high heat or laid out on a griddle, the fatty pork develops a crisp, chewy exterior. That was completely lacking in this sandwich, and wherever it was hiding it had all the flavor to keep it company. With the bread and the meat failing, everything else went into a free fall. Iceberg lettuce isn’t going to save anything, nor is mayo. Cheese wasn’t advertised as being part of the sandwich, so it’s hard to complain about it lacking, but guacamole was promised and was not delivered. In short, everything that can go wrong did, and I ended up making my way through the worst torta I’ve ever come across. I take no joy in recounting this for you today, but some things are inescapable fact.

La Cubana – Casita Chilanga, El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA

A little while back La Casita Chilanga was the subject of a review by a fellow sandwich enthusiast, and I made a note to give the place a try myself. In order to keep the comparison strict I ordered the same thing, La Cubana. It’s a monster of a sandwich, as wide as the plate it comes on, stuffed with pork leg, ham, breaded beef steak, chorizo, and sausage, in addition to standard issue stuff like tomato, onion, avocado, and a chipotle mayo. From the linked review, I was expecting “an explosion of meat and crunchy grilled flat bread,” and so I was a bit surprised with what I got. Given such a physically wide palate, the Cubana is built not so much up as out. It isn’t a towering sandwich; there’s a lot going on but It handled well and was completely manageable. Altogether, the whole thing seems almost, well, restrained.

This isn’t all upside, as a single portion of avocado was not nearly enough to cover the sandwich. That’s disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In a sandwich this size, it’s difficult to get coverage the whole way across, and you often end up with ingredients pairing off rather than working all together. You get a bite of ham and steak here, a bit of chorizo and pork there. The ham had been crisped up via hot skillet or flat top, and that made all the difference in both flavor and texture. The sausage listed was, near as I could tell, the humble hot dog, but I note that as an item of interest rather than a fault. In fact, I found the ingredient combinations that presented themselves as I ate to be highly satisfactory, and overall would rate this a fine sandwich.

Torta Milanesa – Taqueria Tlaquepaque, Willow St, San Jose, CA

I have to say, friends, that upon eating this sandwich I felt like quite the fool. Part of that is the fault of Taqueria Tlaquepaque, but I deserve a share of the blame as well. I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect torta milanesa for a while, something I first discussed here. In both of the sandwiches featured in that post, the main issue is that the cutlet, the meat of the sandwich, was not freshly fried. Fried food on a sandwich is pass/fail, it’s either crispy and delightful or soggy and off-putting. So when I saw that Taqueria Tlaquepaque’s sandwich featured a freshly fried, crisp-as-can-be center, I was delighted. Sadly, my delight faded within the first few bites of the sandwich.

This is where my feeling like a fool comes in. The torta isn’t a complicated sandwich. You need a particular type of bread, most often a bolillo or telera roll. You need some some meat, some avocado, lettuce, tomato and cheese and you’re all set. It can certainly be more complicated than that, but at its most basic level the sandwich is a simple matter. And so, having had two decent-but-not-great tortas, I had assumed that every establishment would be able to put together the basics and once I found some place that was curteous enough to make mine to order I would be all set. Taqueria Tlaquepaque quickly disabused me of that idea, as I set in to a sandwich that was positively dripping with crema Mexicana. Mexican table cream is a bit like sour cream, but a bit thinner in consistency and more mild in flavor. I know people who abhor it, but like most things I think when used responsibly it has its place on a sandwich. But nothing about this was responsible, as there was so much cream even the fresh fried goodness was hard to find. There was avocado in the sandwich, but I’m relying on the picture to tell me that because I certainly couldn’t taste it. This sandwich really could have been something, and I take no joy in relating to you this tale of absurd levels of condiment. I should have known to take each sandwich on its own merits, and to never expect anything without good reason. But my heart got ahead of me, and it was a lousy sandwich that pulled me back to earth.

Steak Torta – Adelita’s Taqueria, Leigh Ave, San Jose, CA

Due mainly to widespread availability and a high floor / high ceiling situation, the torta is the sandwich archetype I consume most frequently. On balance I think that’s a good thing, as a great many tortas are quite tasty, but it is not without its downside. This is the peril of any obsession, I think, that the more you learn, explore and experience, the more unforgiving your comparisons get. What I’m driving at is that this wasn’t a bad sandwich, but it wasn’t good either. Specifically, it was a far cry from what would be available at Mexico Bakery #2 or Los Reyes de la Torta. Los Reyes are a good distance away from my home base, so thoughts of them tend to be wistful and with a more romantic sense of regret. Mexico Bakery is very close by, though, and so when consuming a sandwich such as the one I got at Adelita’s I felt the sharper sting of a lost opportunity. This was a decent sandwich, but a little bit more effort and I would have had a very good one. The lettuce was crisp, the guacamole as tasty as guacamole usually is, the steak seasoned well enough and though the roll could have been better a few moments on the griddle gave it a decent crunch. In spite of all that, though, I have heard the songs of tortas much more lyrical than this one, and so I came away disappointed. This is no fault of the establishment, and originally I hesitated, sullying the internet with negative words they don’t deserve. But this is On Sandwiches, and sometimes we must overcome our hesitation in search of truths.

And make no mistake, friends, this is not a small issue. What this comes down to is the matter of habit versus experimentation. I could have headed downtown and gotten a torta at Mexico Bakery #2, and it would have been good. For that matter I could have made plans to travel to Arizona and gotten one that was truly spectacular. But I wanted to try a new establishment, even knowing that I might come away disappointed. This is an issue we must all confront virtually every time we set out to have a sandwich, and there is no easy answer. You could try as many places as possible, but you would be doing yourself a disservice by never returning to the truly great sandwiches. You could rely on a set of standby sandwiches, but you would be haunted by thoughts of opportunities wasted. Of course there’s a balance to be found between these two extremes, but what comfort is that? At every opportunity you feel the tug of both viewpoints, and there is never a hope of satisfying both. The best any of us can do, I suppose, is to weigh our options, trust our gut, and know that there will come a tomorrow, with another opportunity for a great sandwich.

Steak Torta — Porto’s Bakery, North Brand Boulevard, Glendale, CA

We’ve visited Porto’s before, and we’re certainly no stranger to either steak sandwiches or tortas. The last Porto’s sandwich featured here was a rare miss from an otherwise exemplary sandwich shop and bakery, and it’s nice to showcase a sandwich that really points out how much the establishment shines when it plays to its strengths.

The steak torta is grilled steak, cotija cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and black bean spread on a French round. The bread, baked in-house, is marvelous. The grilled steak is flavorful, even though it is the normal torta-quality steak you would expect. The true star of the show, however is the black bean spread. Porto’s uses this on several sandwiches, and the first time I took a bite of one, my mind burst into a fire of one vital question: “WHY ISN’T THIS  ON EVERY SANDWICH?” The black bean spread is something that, as soon as you taste it, you wonder why you haven’t thought of it before. It adds a welcome earthiness and savoury element that so many unneeded vegetables can only hope to aspire to.

This sandwich is nothing short of a delight, a wonderful balance of creaminess, firmness, and a wide flavor palate. The bread holds everything together perfectly and although the cheese may be a bit lost, you’ll find the experience pleasing in every way.

 

Tortas Milanesa – Adelita’s Taqueria & Mexico Bakery No 2, San Jose, CA

The torta milanesa at Adelita's Taqueria in San Jose

Mexican food doesn’t get a tremendous amount of respect. Whether or not it gets the respect it deserves is a matter for another site, I suppose. Something about its ubiquity and its ability to remain tasty while suffering in quality, though, has led to it assuming a place in American cuisine where nobody is expecting much. I think that’s too bad. I eat a fair number of tortas, probably more than any other particular type of sandwich, and I’m hoping that one of these days one of them is going to really knock my socks off. What I have long suspected is that there is a sandwich out there that is as transcendent an experience as the bánh mì at Saigon Bánh Mì. That there is a torta out there that is genuinely sublime, something that when I find it will forever influence my greater sandwich worldview. I had a great, great sandwich at Los Reyes de la Torta, but the very fact that I’m writing this suggests that it didn’t have quite the impact that it could have. You might be wondering what makes me so certain that sandwich is out there, and I’ll admit that for a while it was just an idle thought, something I would consider from time to time but never really embraced. But when I sat down to eat the Torta Milanesa from Adelita’s Taqueria, I knew my search had begun in earnest.

It isn’t a particularly great sandwich. It’s an above average torta, better than La Victoria, but not as good as Los Reyes. What jumped out at me here, though, was the milanesa. The milanesa, cousin to the Italian cotoletta and the German schnitzel, is a thin slice of beef spiced, dipped in egg, dredged in breadcrumbs and shallow fried. That last step was the downfall of this particular torta, as the milanesa had been fried well before it ended up on my sandwich. By the time it got to me the coating was a bit damp and well detached from the beef in places.  In spite of that the beef was tender and the whole thing hinted at what could have been. A crunchy coating on a tender piece of beef, creamy avocado, just the right salsa…it could have been something really special, had it been well executed. I finished the sandwich a bit disappointed, but now certain that there is a torta out there, a transcendent torta just waiting for me. So I went looking elsewhere.

The torta milanesa from Mexico Bakery No 2
My first thought was to try Mexico Bakery No 2, the downtown location of the place that serves what might be the best torta in the south bay. My previous experience with them was downright delicious, a chorizo torta that was that wonderful kind of greasy. If anyone had mastered the milanesa, I figured, it had to be them.


The torta milanesa from Mexico Bakery is considerably more elaborate than the one from Adelita’s. Where Adelita’s brought simple lettuce / tomato / avocado accompaniments, Mexico Bakery provides those things plus a couple slices of soft cheese and a healthy dose of pickled jalapeños. It’s very different than the sandwich at Adelita’s, and very good. They had a bit of a heavy hand with the jalapeños, but a small adjustment evened things out. When consuming the second half of the sandwich I swapped out about half the jalapeños and put in their place a good dose of tomatillo salsa, and that really made things sing. This was a very good sandwich, but ultimately it is not the end of my search. It suffered from the same thing that derailed the earlier torta, namely that the milanesa itself was not freshly fried. Fresher than Adelita’s, but not cripsy or showing any other hallmarks of the genuinely fresh. If it isn’t fresh, there isn’t a whole lot that can save it. It speaks to the quality of Mexico Bakery that the sandwich was so good in spite of that, but ultimately fried food on a sandwich is pass/fail. This sandwich didn’t pass.

So the search continues. There’s a torta milanesa out there, one that’s really, really good. One day I’m going to find it, and on that day I’m going to eat it.

Carnitas Torta, La Victoria, San Carlos St, San Jose, CA

A carnitas torta from La Victoria taqueria, San Jose

Living in the area that I do, there are a fair number of pretty good establishments serving Mexican food. And the torta, as a class, is a pretty good sandwich. (I’ve previously covered tortas here here and here, though the best I’ve ever had was in Phoenix, not California.) So the combination of two things that are good more often that not gives you a really good shot at getting a sandwich you know will excel. Sadly, La Victoria managed to slip through that narrow window with this disappointing offering. La Victoria’s claim to fame is their orange sauce, a creamy hot sauce that is everything its reputation promises. It is obscenely good, and a healthy dose of it made sure this sandwich was tasty enough. But beyond the sauce, there just wasn’t much there. There was a thin roll, a handful of iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomato, and a helping of carnitas that might best be described as just on the friendly side of acceptable. If there was avocado in there, it was doing its best to hide from me.

Maybe it’s that Northern California Mexican cuisine is ruled by the burrito, and in many cases the torta appears on the menu as an afterthought. Perhaps La Victoria thought they could skate by on what is admittedly superb sauce, and they just didn’t pay their torta much mind. Well that’s too bad, because even simple sandwiches deserve an honest effort, and the people who eat them deserve a better sandwich than this.

Chorizo Torta – Bakery Mexico No. 2, E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA

The Chorizo Torta from Bakery Mexico in San Jose, CA

What better way to kick off Greasy Sandwich Month here at On Sandwiches than with a seeded telera roll stuffed full of Chorizo? I got this sandwich to go, and upon unwrapping it the wrinkles in the tinfoil had each accumulated their own pool of grease. This might be enough to scare off some people, but not yours truly. No, fat provides both a pleasing taste and texture, and I welcome it. So let us celebrate the greasy, sloppy sandwich, starting with this very one. Accompanied by tomato and a healthy-but-not-obtrusive amount of cheese, the savory Mexican sausage soaked into the bread and made for a delightfully juicy, wonderfully savory sandwich. Not every sandwich should put you down for a nap, but every so often it’s just what you’re looking for. Without jalapenos or any other bold ingredients, this one stood on the strength of its grease and I am happy to say it was a success.