417 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
This, uh, mission of mine started out at Mission Brewery (1441 L Street, East Village, 619-544-0555). Had 15 minutes to wait for a bus at 12th and Imperial. So, a quick romp across the Petco parking lot to ye olde vacant Wonder Bread factory, which Mission moved into at the start of last year. Now, it’s a big, airy, brewing-vat-packed pub with a lo-ong counter.
Grabbed a sampler (only $1!) of their excellentissimo Dark Seas Russian Imperial Stout (full pint’s $7.54, after tax), and what I noticed as I sipped was a menu. Hey, they have actual food! Tortas, mostly.
“We don’t make them here,” said Rod, the barman. “We phone the order up to Bolillo, on Fourth Avenue. Really good. Only thing is, it takes about 20 minutes from, like, order to eating.”
That was two days ago. Didn’t have time to try the food then. But tonight, as I tramp up Fourth, in deepest Gaslamp, I’m thinking about those big, round tortas — Mexican “burgers” — and, lo and behold, here it is. “Bolillo Tortas.” Recognize the sign from the menu at Mission. Last year when it first opened, Reader Feast! blogger Mary Beth wrote about how they wanted to be “the most important torteria in America” and an “ambassador to the true Mexican culture.”
Wow. That’s ambitious. Guess I have to stop and see what the fuss is about. Promised the lovely Carla a late-night snack, anyway.
Must say, they’ve done things up nicely: patio, red umbrellas, and, inside, raw-timber plank walls, plus a woven bamboo-looking ceiling that curves down to become side-cladding. There’s a red, wall-length bench seat all down that side and several black tables. Pretty sophisticated. This ain’t no workaday taco joint.
I haul up to the counter. Shawn and Jovel are waiting. I look up at the board. Decent prices, mostly seven to ten buckeroos. I see beers in the cooler, $4–$7. Seven for an Arrogant Bastard. Be still, my heart.
But I’ve got Carla waiting, starving, back at the ranch. So, I race through the choices of tortas. There’s a simple ham and cheese ($6.95) and a beef milanesa ($9.50). The Cubano is ham, steak, cheese ($9.75). Or, you can get huevo con chorizo, egg and Mexican sausage ($7.50).
“Chorizo,” says Carla, when I call for instructions.
“Good choice,” says Shawn.
I could get a horchata (the Mexican rice drink) for $2.50 to drink while I wait. But, no. I don’t like hurrying, and I hate not to finish it, and I don’t do drinks aboard buses no mo’.
So, I chat with the guys. Jovel’s the one who trundles the tortas around town in a special delivery tricycle. It’s sitting under the tree outside.
“Down to Mission Brewery’s a good, long ride,” he says.
That’s when Stefano Pezzotti, the boss, comes out from the back.
“Yes, we want to become the premier torta place in the country,” he says when I ask.
Turns out, things are looking good for them: in two months, they’ll be opening a second place at UTC, in the Westgate mall.
“Westgate asked us,” says Stefano. “That was a real compliment. It showed we were on the right track. And we may be opening in Escondido, too.”
Not bad for a guy who only opened up here 11 months ago.
“I’ve always had this dream,” he says, “of making tortas popular in this country. They’re so much a part of life in Mexico City, where I’m from, and all around Mexico. So, as soon as I came to the States — San Diego — 11 years ago, after working in Cancún, I started looking for partners and a place. Basically, making tortas, but not in a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. You see, here we have wine, beers, salads, desserts. It’s a nice place for families, business people, but still at low prices.”
Tortas in Mexico, he says, are like burgers in the States. “I want to franchise. I want Bolillo to be bigger than Chipotle! And they have 500 outlets already.”
You’ve got to admire someone with the cojones to dream big like that. Then it hits me. Are we looking at a phenomenon? Here’s Stefano, raising the humble torta to middle-class sophistication. Then there’s Chipotle, 500 restaurants. El Vitral at the ballpark: a sophisticated Mexican tapas-and-tequila joint doing so well they’re opening two more glitzy places in Chula Vista.
Sure seems like middle-class Latino culture is starting to strut its stuff, and, by the way, both Latinos and non-Latinos are turning up at these joints. San Diego is ready for it.
Still, hold up here, pardner. Getting ahead of myself. Haven’t even tasted the torta yet.
Plus, final judgment has to be left to Carla, the ultimate chorizo expert.
On the way home, I realize I forgot to ask Stefano why he named the place “Bolillo Tortas.”
Carla, natch, has an explanation. “Torta is what the sandwich is called. Some places put the filling in a telera, which is big and round and soft. But this place serves it in a bolillo. It’s like a French baguette — crisp outside, soft inside, oval-shaped.” She bites in. “Brilliant! It’s just salty and tangy enough. And, rich? Mi corazón, you have surpassed yourself.”
The word I’m thinking is generous. And the bolillo is great. It’s still crispy, even after the ride home. The torta has egg, a wad of chorizo sausage, flaked cheese, and lots of avocado slicking out everywhere.
On the side, there’s a great little salad with slices of fresh-cut apple, cranberries, and almonds that give a nutty sweetness, plus red onions. And a small bowl of lemony-garlic mustard sauce. I pour it over the salad and into my half of the torta. There’s also a separate grilled jalapeño wrapped in bacon and cheese. Such a deal.
Whew. Sit back. Sated. I’ll think about jumping up and down and lifting weights to work it all off later (heh). But we’ve gotta get back soon to that Bolillo patio. A $5 glass of vino for Carla, the Arrogant Bastard for moi…good talk, good torta, good God! Can’t wait to get hungry again.
The Place: Bolillo Tortas, 417 Fourth Avenue, downtown San Diego, 619-255-6268
Prices: Ham and cheese torta , $6.95; beef milanesa torta, $9.50; torta Cubano (with ham, steak, cheese), $9.75; egg and chorizo torta, $7.50; jicama salad, $6.50 ($3.80 for half); bean soup, $5 for a bowl ($3 for a cup); Mexican flan with cream cheese dessert, $5
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–midnight, Sunday–Wednesday; 11:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m., Thursday–Saturday
Buses: 3, 11, 120
Nearest Bus Stop: Fourth and Market
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Convention center