New Orleans Learns to Talk Tortas

New Orleans, LA –
The taqueria, or its mobile spin-off, the taco truck, functions like a tortilla-based society. Most of the fare served from these utterly casual kitchens is either cradled, folded, wrapped or scattered over some kind of tortilla. That's why, among such choices, the torta is a rebel, and sometimes it can prove an unexpectedly adventurous option for a quick bite on the go.

A torta is a Mexican sandwich, and it's made on big, doughy rolls or loaves, just like any other sub. Once the person making your torta gets to work however, the differences begin piling up.

To begin, the best torta places will split the roll and grill both the interior and exterior of both halves. This creates four butter-crisp layers, adding texture and structure for the avalanche of soft and juicy fillings about to come.

For those of us accustomed to po-boys and deli sandwiches, this adds up to quite a different taste. Instead of mayonnaise, there's sour cream; instead of pickles, you get squeezes of fresh lime. Spicy heat comes from salsas that are usually thin, green and very hot. For the main event, the torta packs chewy, crunchy bits of beef, or soft pork with grilled pineapple and onion or whatever else the taqueria cooks have at hand. A smear of black bean paste underneath it all is typical too.

Tortas are a full-blown craze in cities with better-established Mexican communities. Pre-Katrina, they were found locally at only a few suburban outposts for authentic Mexican cooking. But the influx of Latinos and the subsequent rise of the taqueria around town have made tortas more accessible than ever.

The rapid proliferation of locations from Taqueria Sanchez alone has helped propagate the torta, now served from its restaurants in Kenner and Metairie, its Gretna walk-up window and its taco truck, usually parked on Elysian Fields near North Claiborne Avenue. In Mid-City, Taqueria Guerrero is another spot to sample tortas. Try the meaty, lean carnitas that taste like cochon de lait. At any of these place, it's evident no one is making a killing on these sandwiches, which cost less than the average po-boy.

Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner puts a different spin on the torta by using New Orleans-style po-boy bread instead of the standard, oblong, sweeter-tasting torta roll. It gives a stronger, denser, chewier frame for the torta, and it goes well with the abundant meats.

Tacos San Miguel in Metairie has the largest selection of fillings, with such uncommon entries as tripe or a hash of roasted poblano peppers and mild farmers cheese. The more adventurous can dig into tongue and the soft, salsa-soaked chicharrons, or you can play it relatively safe with grilled chicken.

No matter what the choice, tortas can be sloppy eating, since the salsa and crema makes a drippy if delicious mess of a meal. It's almost enough to make one wish for a good, stout tortilla to hold it together after all. But then, maybe in a town where certain po-boys are judged by the number of napkins they require we're ready to tackle such untidy tortas.

Taqueria Sanchez
46 West Bank Expy., Gretna, 361-3050
4432 South I-10 Service Rd., Metairie, 883-2649
2633 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 467-1449

Taqueria Chilangos
2723 Roosevelt Blvd., Kenner, 905-9933

Tacos San Miguel
3517 20th St., Metairie, 267-4027;

Taqueria Guerrero
208 N. Carrollton Ave., 484-6959