In a typical bar, it's not at all uncommon for the drinks to surpass the food in quality. A bartender or mixologist is a true artisan, carefully blending and infusing his potions until he creates a stellar concoction, the best of which will wow his patrons and result in tips aplenty.
But if the drinks are the most memorable menu item in a torteria that serves no alcohol, there may be a problem.
That was certainly the case at Torteria Insurgentes, a place along the Webb Chapel Hispanic strip that serves tacos, gorditas, sopas, huaraches, and of course tortas, along with impressive aguas frescas. These light, refreshing, perfect-for-summer drinks are a mainstay of many a restaurant, bar, or taqueria anywhere there's a thriving Latino community.
Aguas frescas are believed to have originated in 15th Century Spain, and are infinitely variable, depending on which grains or fruits are in season. Insurgentes has four popular varieties: Pina (pineapple), Jamaica (hibiscus), Horchata (flavored rice), and Tamarindo (tamarind, best known from Indian cuisine).
First, I tried the Jamaica, a delightful swirl of cranberry-flavored water with just a hint of cherry and strawberry. Never cloying like some fruit juices, this beverage will slake your thirst and have you asking for more. Be sure to get the larger grande size rather than the smaller chico. Next visit, the Horchata impressed, with clear overtones of vanilla and coconut. Not only do both aguas stand alone as excellent drinks, they pair well with good, spicy cuisine.
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Sadly, on both of my visits to Insurgentes, it was the food itself that was lacking. Pambazo is a Mexican antojito very similar to the torta, though the bread itself is different; soft like a bolillo, yet tougher and chewier, the better to hold its shape when filled with chorizo, papas, onion, crema, lettuce, tomato, and queso fresco. The resulting sprawl takes over the plate and makes an attractive appearance. Unfortunately, the pambazo proved to be about 80 percent bread and 20 percent filling, the bread was somewhat difficult to chew, and the filling was under-seasoned. I had to rely on one of the two squirt bottles of salsa provided on the table to get a decent meal. These salsas, one orange, one green, restored the fire lacking in the sandwich, but a sauce should augment, rather than replace proper seasoning. Frustrated, I returned to Insurgentes a second time, but this comida was no better than my first. Insurgentes gets its name from a street in Mexico City, and I thought maybe the Tacos del D. F. (Distrito Federal ) might be better than the pambazo. This was somewhat the case for two of my choices.
Campechanos is suadero (beef belly) combined with longaniza (spiced sausage) and this version was nicely spiced and quite tasty, although the factory-tasting tortillas didn't help matters much. The carne pastor taco was also quite good, with spit-roasted flavor, and was also well seasoned. But the bistec taco fell completely flat and flavorless, and was almost devoid of spice, so once again, I relied on the salsas. Also, these are Mexico City tacos, so they were quite small, and again skimpy on the fillings.
Besides the aguas frescas, Torteria Insurgentes other strong suit is service and appearance. The little storefront is bright, cheery, and spotless, the service relatively quick. There is adequate seating for a small place, and the staff here adjusts well to your signals, whether you want a quick lunch or longer linger. Yet, I hesitate to return, as I'm not sure I've seen enough promise in the food to warrant another visit. I'm certainly not giving up on this part of town, as Tacos El Viajero is located only a block or so away, and an intriguing place is right next door to the torteria which advertises Peruvian food. Perhaps I'll give Torteria Insurgentes one last shot, if only to drink another glass of agua fresca.
3701 W. Northwest Highway, #310