In the mid-1970s i remember being a plaid-panted -and-polyester-blended young man with a head full of dreams about becoming a famous rock star and traveling the world with Mott the Hoople. Even though I had just crossed the threshold into my teen years, my mom felt it necessary to give me regular reminders about how important it was to appreciate the simple things in life. At the time, I couldn’t hear her advice over the sweet tunes blaring out of my bright orange JC Penney 8-Track player, but the message somehow managed to lodge itself into the tiny grey folds of my hormone addled brain. Decades later the idea of becoming a rock star is about as appealing as a dose of flea market bath salts, but the simple pleasure of a well made sandwich wraps around me like a Snuggie of existential comfort in my sometimes overcomplicated life.
Warren Zevon famously said, “Enjoy every sandwich,” when faced with the impending certainty of his own death. He used the perfect, poetic simplicity of the sandwich to illustrate lessons he had learned about life, death and the misdirected value of excess in a culture that elevates the elaborate and mocks the minimalist. He also really liked sandwiches. And Mexican food. Which completes the circle of life between the advice of my mother, the life lessons of Zevon, and the one sandwich that ties it all together—the Mexican Torta.
If you are not already familiar with the Mexican torta you are missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures. These are not complicated sandwiches with hand-crafted aioli’s or carefully tweezed micro-greens. These are two-fisted, look-you-in-the-eye sandwiches with no pretension or hidden agendas. They’re the kind of sandwiches that hold your hair back after a hard night on the town and can comfort you after an early morning walk of shame.
A successful sandwich, like a successful life, is all about balance. The ratio of bread to condiment to filling is of utmost importance and must be carefully managed, similar to the balance between work, social obligations and masturbation. The torta is an undefeated champion of balance, starting with its soft, comforting bread with its light crust and equally light flavor. Depending on the preference of the cook, either a bolillo or a telera bun is used, which is then split, toasted and spread with a nice schmear of refried beans, a little mayo and some avocado slices.
In Mexico, street vendors and tortería owners fill their sandwiches with an endlessly creative assortment of fillings and give them names like “La Gringa” or “La Barbie.” Here in Chattanooga, most restaurants keep it simple and stuff their tortas with chicken, beef, chorizo sausage or pork carnitas. Occasionally, Taqueria Jalisco will offer a torta with pork, ham and grilled pineapple, but my personal favorite is a simple pork carnitas torta. Finish filling the sandwich with a little lettuce, tomato, maybe a few slices of pickled jalapeno, and you have the Philosopher King of sandwiches, ready to sustain you, please you, and present itself for contemplation on its simplicity should you feel the need to contemplate. If not, just enjoy the sandwich and leave the contemplation to Richard Gere.
When I find myself in need of the comforting simplicity of the mighty torta, I make my way to my neighborhood sanctuary of solace—La Altena Mexican restaurant. La Altena offers pork carnitas, which are the most holy of all torta filling options. Pork carnitas are shoulder cuts of pork that are slow cooked until tender, pulled and picked, then quickly roasted or pan seared just prior to service to produce a tongue-seducing textural playground between the softness of the slow-cooked pork and the crispiness of its caramelized edges. While it should be illegal to fill a torta with any other meat, such intolerance runs counter to the guiding principles set forth by Mr. Zevon and my mom so I will refrain from such narrow judgments for now.
As time goes on, the more I realize my mom and Warren Zevon were right. Appreciate, enjoy and elevate the simple things, even if it’s nothing more than a really good sandwich.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a lot of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.