You can walk into most taquerias in Dallas and order a torta, even if they're not listed on the menu. That's because the building blocks of the Mexican sandwich are the same ones used to assemble a taco plate. The only extra ingredients required are bread and a few condiments.
The bread is usually a soft bolillo, roughly the size of a football, with a thin and crispy crust that is made even crispier with some time on a griddle. You have a better chance of finishing a football, though, because a football is filled with air. A torta is filled with the entire contents of a taqueria's walk-in refrigerator and then, for good measure, a thin slice of ham.
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Beans are spread on the bottom slice of bread and topped with your taco filling of choice. Shops that specialize in tortas offer breaded and fried cutlets of meat and occasionally a fried egg. Melted cheese, lettuce and tomatoes are standard, in addition to mayonnaise and — because what the hell — a few slices of squishy avocado.
Tortas can be intimidating. They're often weighed in pounds, not ounces. Try tackling one of these behemoths alone and your friends may not hear from you for a very long time — unless you're a luchador, in which case you'd still be sluggish for a while.
When Taqueria Latina opened on Skillman Street, it wasn't a surprise to find tortas on the menu. Owners Fernando and Lydia Barrera also started Latin Deli, which is just down the street on Abrams Road and already known for its delicious sandwiches. The surprise is that the tortas outshine the tacos that dominate the flat-screen menu that greets you when you enter the taqueria's door.
And that is saying something, because the tacos are very good. The chorizo has a nice chewy bite with moderate heat. The cabeza has a full, beefy flavor and boasts cheek, head and chuck meat. The pork skin for the chicharrón swims in a green sauce and it's finely chopped and approachable, where other versions are thick and rubbery. Most of the meats leave the flat grill with crisp and gnarled edges, giving the tacos a nice texture, and the tortillas are freshly pressed and griddled in the same kitchen. These are solid tacos by Dallas standards, but they're not as good as the tortas that feature the same fillings. Not by a long shot.
Unlike most tortas, the sandwiches at Taqueria Latina are well within the means of one moderately hungry consumer. The rolls are about the size of a 6-inch hoagie, with a thin, crisp crust and a soft, white interior. Confidently order one for yourself and warn your friends you won't be sharing.
If this is your first torta, consider starting with the campechenos (a mix of chorizo and the strings of chewy beef used in the fajita tacos), but anything that is stuffed into a taco here can be sandwiched between two slices of bread to create something delicious. The white-jacketed cooks cut open a roll and smear the bottom with a thin layer of beans while your chosen meat sizzles nearby on the grill. It's finished in the standard way, but with more precision and care. Lettuce isn't added in a heap, but carefully placed in strips cut even more carefully from a leaf of romaine lettuce. Tomato, mayo and avocado are all expected, but your torta arrives lovingly wrapped in paper and cut neatly on a bias. It's plated as if ready for Instagram.
The tiny dining room is comely, too. It's painted in the same green and orange color scheme the Barreras used for their deli. You can sit up front at a small counter or at a few tables along the wall, but the best spots are at the counter toward the back, where you can watch the cooks turn out tortillas from a massive wooden press that's caked with wet masa.
Occasionally, you'll see them working with a round that's larger than the rest. The thick, Frisbee-sized tortillas are for quesadillas packed with so much cheese that each bite pulls strings. Order the rajas, which features strips of poblano peppers and onions, and be sure to hit it with the red and green salsas on your table. Take intermittent bites of the chopped lettuce and tomato salad, dressed lightly with crema.
The plates are acrylic instead of the Styrofoam you're used to, and they receive the sort of small embellishments that make good taco plates great. Each one leaves the postage stamp kitchen with a little extra something, ranging from diminutive cups of beans, to radish slices laid out in a fanfold, to sautéed chilies and onions that look as good as they taste.
There's also a dessert you won't find at most taquerias. At the front counter under a cake cover, small portions of corn pudding sit bundled in paper cups like haphazard, deflated muffins. They eat like dense, wet cornbread, with a slight custardy flavor. Since the tortas are manageable, you'll have just enough room to stuff one down when you're finished. They may not look incredibly appetizing, but they taste good, and what more can you expect from a taqueria sandwiched between two liquor stores in a tiny, rundown strip mall? The tortas you get here are among the best — and certainly the prettiest — in the city, and that's more than enough reason to pay Taqueria Latina a visit.