OK, tacos. You've had your spotlight long enough. Now it's time to share some of the love with your sandwich alter ego, the torta.
A good torta is more than just a Mexican sandwich, though. Typically available anywhere you can find a good taco, the regional variations can make each one a little bit better than — or more distinct from — the next. Fat, hefty, and chock-full of handmade ingredients, they are also enough food to feed a family of four. When all those elements come together — the freshly baked bread, that seasoned juicy meat, crisp vegetables, ripe avocado, creamy dairy spread, savory refried beans, spicy salsas, and salty cheese — it's all the flavors of Mexico in one bite.
You certainly won't find anything like this at Taco Bell, so here are six of South Florida's most amazing tortas. Now eat!
6. La Union Bakery
7796 Wiles Road, Coral Springs. Call 954-757-0702, or visit launionmexicanbakery.com.
Like many good spots in South Florida, La Union bakery is near hidden from sight, a small shop in a rundown Coral Springs shopping strip. First and foremost a Mexican bakery, the place offers a variety of gourmet pastries, fresh-baked breads, and special-occasion cakes made to order. A large display case takes up the entire back wall, where patrons shuffle along — tongs in hand — to select the day's goods. The kitchen also deals in tacos and tortas, for hungry clients in need of more savory options. The tortas here are especially good, made with doughy, soft pockets of fresh-from-the-oven bread, slivers of vine-ripened tomatoes, crispy shredded lettuce, tender grilled meat, and a smashed avocado.
5. Alegria Tacos
3801 N. Andrews Ave., Oakland Park. Call 954-563-7170.
You won't find mariachis, oversized margaritas, or stuffed chihuahuas at this tiny taco restaurant, but what Alegria lacks in kitschy ambiance it makes up for in divinely authentic Mexican eats on the cheap. The husband-and-wife operation ushers in a neighborhood crowd daily for lunch specials or plates of tacos, burritos, menudo, and tamales with heaping sides of beans and rice. Kitsch-free and underpriced, this authentic restaurant provides its crowd of regulars with fast food that will get you hooked faster than the real-deal fast food. The spot is best-known for its tacos, but the tortas are just as good, everything fried up fresh on the hot griddle in the small kitchen at back. The menu refers to them as Mexican "grinders" — all served with a spread of refried beans, cotija cheese, tomato, onion, avocado, and jalapeños. Order them five ways: al pastor marinated pork with hints of red peppers and chunks of pineapples, asada steak, Milanesa steak, fried pork, or lengua (tongue).
4. Tacos Al Carbon
4420 Lake Worth Road, Lake Worth. Call 561-432-8474.
A perennial winner, this roadside attraction serves some of the most vaunted, zero-frills Mexican food found in South Florida. With the place open around the clock to feed the masses, you can't go wrong with a lunchtime taco stuffed with familiar fillings like grilled chicken, pork al pastor, carne asada, pork skin, and beef tongue. There are tons of menu items that can be "best of" items here, everything from the roasted corn on the cob smothered in a parade of creamy, spicy dressings to the supercreamy guacamole blended with a dairy cream and topped with fresh, grated queso blanco you can take to-go in large metal tubs. But it's those tortas — giant round sandwiches packed full of the food truck's best fare — that keep me coming back for more. The shredded chicken is a favorite, delicate meat pulled apart to form a thin layer between avocado, jalapeño, refried beans, and a thick padding of melted queso.
3. Tortilleria Mexicana
1614 NE Sample Road, Pompano Beach. Call 954-943-0057.
It's not just a tortilleria. It's also a carniceria (butcher), panaderia (bakery), and tienda (food store) supplying all manner of Mexican goodies. The open kitchen at back is where the magic happens, stacks of house-made tortillas supplying a steady patronage that orders up tacos to go. Others opt to sit at the small lunch counter beside the drink cases and meat counter, chowing down on platters of mole rojo (chicken with red sauce), costilla en salsa verde (ribs smothered in a spicy green sauce), and steaming bowls of pozole. The tortas here are some of the best around, however. Giant loaves of bread baked in the back are sliced open, grilled, and smothered with natilla (a dairy cream that looks like mayo but tastes like sweetened sour cream), a thick layer of refried black beans, and slivers of ripe avocado. From there, you choose the meat: fried or roasted pork, a whole chicken cutlet, shredded beef or carne asada, or cabeza (beef head). It's topped with crumbled queso, lettuce, and ripe tomato. Be sure to order a horchata while you wait from the giant plastic jug behind the counter. It's some of the best around, topped off with a dash of cinnamon. Just one word of advice: Eat it as quickly as possible, while the ingredients are still fresh and before the bread becomes a soggy mess.
2. Mexican Supermarket
2099 W. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach. Call 954-917-4744.
More of a well-stocked convenience store than actual supermarket, the Mexican Supermarket in Pompano Beach has been serving area customers for years. There are several aisles packed with the usual imported Latin items: tortillas, herbs, spices, soda, seasonings, juices, and rice. In the back, the meat-market counter also has a staff ready to box prepared foods and make to-go orders, everything from soups, tacos, and burritos to grilled items, fajitas, and huaraches. The tortas, however, offer up considerable variety. There's a torta with seasoned shredded pork or barbacoa; chorizo or carne asada; Hawaiian with grilled ham, pineapple, and steak or beef franks; lengua (cow tongue); pulled pork; chicken; and pambazo (torta bread dipped in red sauce and filled with potatoes and chorizo. There's even a cubana — the torta take on a traditional Cuban sandwich. For the most authentic take, however, try the milanesa: a breaded and fried steak. For dessert, grab a conches, a sweet Mexican pastry famous for its shell-like shape.
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SHOW ME HOW
1. Los Tacos by Chef Omar
12393 Pembroke Road, Pembroke Pines. Call 954-430-5180, or visit lostacosbychefomar.com.
Hailing from Mexico City, Los Tacos owner Omar Covarrubias doesn't just prepare Mexican cuisine. He prepares authentic Mexican cuisine using traditional recipes and the correct (and often Mexican-sourced) ingredients. Covarrubias will be the first to admit that most Mexican food outside of Mexico is a sham, much of it watered-down versions of the country's northernmost cuisine, served stateside as chicken-topped nachos, flavorless fajitas, and overfried chimichangas. It's Tex-Mex: American food with Mexican origins. And while the dishes at Los Tacos may look and sound familiar, they're Covarrubias' way of delivering the real flavors of Mexico to the South Florida populace. He pulls from the country's various regions to offer some of its more colorful cuisine. There are enchiladas prepared the same way you'll find them in Mexico City; cochinita pibil tacos, a slow-roasted pork served the same as it is in the Yucatán Peninsula; or tinga, a red-chili-stained shredded chicken slow-simmered in clay pots from Puebla — and an indigenous Afro-Mexican dish from Veracruz. There's even a caesar salad said to be invented in Tijuana. And for all those reasons, he makes some pretty damned good tortas. A girdled bun arrives almost the size of the dish it's served on, stuffed with giant slabs of a seasoned roast pork, plenty of melty cheese, thick slices of avocado, a few secret sauces, and a pile of crispy shredded lettuce. The entire deal is so full of flavor, it's like a fiesta for your mouth. Viva Mexico!
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.