I've been waiting for a long, long time to describe something as a monstrosity, and the torta finally gave me that chance.
A torta is to Mexico what a bahn mi is to Vietnam. The bahn mi's crusty baguette, the football-shaped bolillo and the rounder, squishier telera used for tortas are all rooted in French colonialism. Furthermore, both the bahn mi and torta come with a myriad of meats from roasted red pork to carnitas and vegetables like pickled daikon and shredded carrots before they veer off into their own unique directions.
A good torta should be a handful. It should be all over the place. It should make you have to ask for more napkins than you thought you needed and probably a to-go container to eat the other half later. It should make you consider using a knife and fork. It would bully the patty melt at the Waffle House. It's boogeyman for any Reuben, and what your favorite Monte Cristo has nightmares about. It's bodacious enough to duke it out with any cheesesteak you can find in Philadelphia and makes a B.L.T. tremble in fear and hide behind the french fries.
In Chatter Magazine's May 2023 edition dedicated to tacos, Sunny Montgomery reminisced about her first time eating tacos at a Rax fast food chain "somewhere in Ohio." It was a hard shell (like the ones popularized by Taco Bell) filled with ground beef. As lowbrow as it is, I still prefer the crunch of a hard shell taco over the chewiness of one made with a traditional tortilla (don't judge me). It made me think back to the first time I mustered enough curiosity to order a torta from Taqueria Los Portales #1 on Kerr Avenue in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a watershed moment that taught me that Mexican food was broader than salsa stains, salted rims and churro crumbs.
Between the jackfruit tacos at Cashew and the ones piled high with the most tender cabeza ever at El Chepe's, Chatter Magazine did such a thorough job of canvassing Chattanooga's "tacoscape," I thought me expounding on the virtues of any other taco would be futile. So I decided to give the torta the respect it deserves.
So, here it is Chattanooga! A guide to a different kind of torta for every day of the week.
The Al Pastor torta - Miss G's Tortas Y Tamales
— Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
— Location: 4801 English Ave.
— Information: 423-653-8394.
There's something extremely tantalizing about watching them shave this roasted pork shoulder from the rotating "trompo." It's almost the same way the meat is done before it's wrapped in the warm pita of a gyro, only there's salsa roja instead of tzatziki sauce.
The Shrimp torta - Taconooga
— Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Sunday (10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).
— Location: 207 A Frazier Ave.
— Information: 423-757-5550.
This is Mazatlan meets the po' boy of New Orleans. I'm not saying they don't exist, but a torta with shrimp is a rarity. As a matter of fact, if you Googled "shrimp torta" right now, your search would land on just as many Filipino omelets as Mexican sandwiches.
The Hawaiiana torta at Taqueria Jalisco
— Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
— Location: 1639 Rossville Ave.
— Information: 423-541-4410.
Just like the extremely polarizing Canadian-born Hawaiian pizza (thank you, Sam Panopoulos), the backbone of this torta is pineapple and ham, but to make matters even tastier, it's topped with carnitas, aka pork fried in its own fat, queso fresca and jalapenos.
The Birria torta at Carnitas Carmelita
— Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
— Location: 2604 Amnicola Highway.
— Information: 423-201-4841.
I can't front, the recent hoopla behind birria is well deserved. Do I feel like the goat version is better? Yes! Do I feel like it needs to be on pizza or in wontons? No! But when it's piled inside a toasted telera, it's a juicier version of a French Dip.
The Milanesa torta at Tacos El Cuñao
— Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
— Location: 5813 Lee Highway #4.
— Information: 423-244-0281.
The meat is pounded super thin and breaded like how the Germans do their schnitzel, but it's more similar to how the Japanese make katsu sandos. Fried chicken always seems to be the cheat code, whether it's on a bun, biscuit or bolillo.
The Cubano torta at Tacos y Tortas Don Beto
— Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
— Location: 6312 Bonny Oaks Drive.
— Information: 423-497-5400.
This is has nothing to do with the humble panini-like ham and cheese Cuban sandwich you can order from Versaille in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. This torta embodies the over-the-top "everything except the kitchen sink" spirit.
The Campechana torta at Taco Roc
— Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
— Location: 6960 Lee Highway.
— Information: 423-653-1001.
Not to be confused with the shrimp cocktail from Campeche, a city on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Chorizo has more spunk than kielbasa and andouille combined, and it's even more delicious when creamy refried beans and chunks of carne asadas are thrown in the mix.
By default, all of these tortas are dressed in the usual: avocado, tomato, lettuce and onions. Unless you're severely allergic to any of these things, please don't deny yourself the pleasure of a torta done the right way.
Contact Andre James at 423-757-6327 or [email protected].