All hail the torta.
Bulkier than a taco, more balanced than a burrito, the torta is a multi-course meal bound together with melted cheese and clamped between halves of soft telera rolls baked golden-brown and marked with a couple of grooves on top.
The origins of the torta are somewhat hazy. One theory traces it to Mexico City in the 1860s, when Mexicans adapted the baguette of their French occupiers, not unlike how the Vietnamese created the bánh mì sandwich during the French colonial period. Another pins its beginnings on Spanish conquistadors who brought wheat flour to Mexico way back in the 16th century.
Whatever the origin, the hefty sandwiches have become a favorite in Mexico and, increasingly, the United States.
You can get tortas in Albuquerque, of course, but rarely have we seen a venue so devoted to the form as Don Tortas, the new restaurant on Central between the Fairgrounds and Nob Hill. Don Tortas offers no less than 16 tortas of varying complexity and bulk, from simple egg-and-cheese breakfast versions to elaborate constructions combining steak, pork and hot peppers.
Don Tortas occupies a freestanding building at the Trade Winds Shopping Center across the street from the Bank of the West Tower. The shopping center takes its name and the design of its sign from a motor hotel that stood on the spot for decades until it was razed in 2009. The space languished for years before being developed into a complex of immaculate, stucco-faced buildings. Sadly, most of the spaces are vacant, despite the convenient location close to Nob Hill and only a few minutes south of I-40.
Don Tortas sits at the front side of the shopping center near an Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus stop. There’s a drive-through window on the north side of the building. Inside, the restaurant is bright and clean. Tangerine-colored tabletops enliven the small, L-shaped dining room.
When I visited, there was one person staffing the counter and one handling the grill. Spanish was spoken freely.
The menu starts off with five Breakfast Tortas ranging from $8.95 to $10.95, but if you really want the full torta experience, try La Patrona ($11.95), one of the six slightly pricier Classic Tortas. The individual components – tender ham, thin ribbons of breaded steak and shredded pork leg wearing some crisp edges from the grill – are excellent, but when combined with melted cheese and bright green, creamy avocado, it becomes positively sublime. It’s good enough to stand with the best Philly steak and cheese.
At $12.95 to $13.95, the five Super Tortas are the most expensive items on the menu. Among those, La Burqueña ($13.95) combines carne asada with Mexican chorizo in melted cheese and a tomato sauce that gave the whole thing the flavor profile of a meatball sub. Postage stamp-sized pieces of roasted green chile added a little bit of heat. The smoky, fatty chunks of carne asada that kept falling out of the sandwich weren’t missed because the smooth, spicy chorizo was superb.
Besides the Classic and Super Tortas, there are several bare-bones options. The Jamon y Queso ($9.95) is a good choice, with lots of gooey cheese around the thinly sliced ham.
Don Tortas offers both house-made potato chips and fries with the sandwiches for a small surcharge. You can sample both in the Half and Half Basket ($2.50). The pale fries were decent, a little chewy but not greasy or oversalted. The chips, made in house, were terrific, ranging between ultra-crisp thin cuts and thicker ones that were soft in the center. I’m all for this trend of restaurants making their own chips.
Along with the tortas, Don Tortas has a rotating selection of aguas frescas lined up in big plastic barrels by the register. The faintly sweet, grassy Watermelon ($3.75 for a small) was a soothing antidote to the spicy food. The Horchata ($3.75 for a small), spicy, creamy and sweet, was also excellent. I look forward to trying other flavors like pineapple and cucumber/lime in the future.
Don Tortas has a few desserts on the menu, along with smoothies called Esquimos in strawberry, banana and chocolate flavors. They were not available day I went. One of the breakfast burritos was vegetarian, but I did not see anything on the menu identified as vegan or gluten-free.
Don Tortas gives one of the world’s great sandwiches a place in the spotlight. It’s a welcome addition to an historic, if downtrodden, stretch of old Route 66.