Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Soup & Sandwiches (in that order) at Bolillo Tortas
Gringos are familiar with the taco, burrito, enchilada and extreme nacho sections of Mexican to-go joints. They’re the unofficial signature cuisine of America’s Finest City. Yet, there’s one prominent, well stocked portion of the standard taco shop bill of fare that gets consistently overlooked—the column headed by the word torta.
For those who’ve been scared off by an unfamiliar term and never tried one, it’s basically a sandwich. In the best cases, they’re made using bolillo rolls, a slightly sweet style of bread with a sturdy exterior crust and a doughy center. All too often on this side of the border, blander types of bread tasting more like a cross between standard white and sourdough are substituted, making for an inferior end product.
So, I was encouraged when I happened upon a new spot in the Gaslamp that gets this sandwich enough not only to devote an entire restaurant to it, but name said business after that key ingredient. Bolillo Tortas offers 17 different tortas, ranging from the kind you can find just about anywhere in San Diego (carne asada, shrimp) to Americano-geared types (turkey and cranberry, ham and cheese) and traditional numbers that are harder to come by.
As a true test, I went for the tradicional category, selecting their Torta Ahogada, a roll stuffed with carnitas and thin rings of raw red onions lying in a shallow red pepper broth. A saucy bathing in chili de arbol-based condiment is standard for this type of torta, though the level of spice with BT's leads me to believe they use a much milder type of chile. The meat was superb, but the sauce could have benefitted from a touch more salt. Overall, it was an enjoyable detour from American tourist fare.
I also sampled a carne asada torta and thought it tasted very good, if not far different than I’d expected. The marinade they use is almost Asian BBQ in flavor and composition, coming across as a sticky sweet and smoky glaze. It was served on a wheat roll, which added a nice supplementary taste element that worked well with the earthy avocados sandwiched in with the meat.
I was pleased to have found good tortas, but the show was stolen by two non-sandwich offerings. The first was their crema de chile poblano y elote, a creamy cheese and white corn soup sporting a good amount of diced poblano chiles. Those peppers are mild by nature, but this soup is extremely spicy (rather unapologetically so)…and extremely delicious. A real diamond in the Gaslamp rough.
Also impressive was their corn on the cob, which is served on a wooden skewer. Such handling devices are necessary. The corn is slathered in a mix of butter, cheese, chile powder and lime. That combo makes for an in-your-face burst of flavor that hits just as strong on the last bite as the first. Never has a better case for efficient typewriter-style cob clearing been made.
Whether it’s for the tortas or their supporting cast (which includes bacon-wrapped, mozzarella-stuffed jalapeños…yum), I’ll for sure be back to this place. Bolillo Torta is located at 417 Fourth Avenue.