On The Range: Tortas

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

No matter that you haven't read the strip in many years, or even if you've never perused the comic that has been a staple of the funny papers across the country for over 70 years, you still probably know that Dagwood Bumstead snacks on impossibly tall sandwiches. Perhaps you've even eaten a Dagwood sandwich yourself, wondering all the while how a man rapidly approaching middle age can consume such humongous things.

Well, in Mexico, Dagwood's sandwich would be called a torta.

Famed Austin etymologist Barry Popik cites numerous examples where a torta is described as a Mexican Poor Boy, particularly in the States. But  calling it a Mexican Dagwood gets the point across better. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Patricia Quintana and Meg Rose agree--and describe a typical Mexico City street scene where the overstuffed sandwiches are sold from push carts:

"Crowds clamor around the vendors, calling out their torta orders. The kaleidoscope of fillings yelled out sounds like a roll call of Mexico City delicacies....breaded veal and refried beans....scrambled eggs and chorizo sausage....fresh squid in its ink."

In her article, "Cheap Eats: The Tasty and Affordable Mexican Torta," Abbey Abanes speculates that the torta dates from the French occupation of Mexico, roughly the time of America's Civil War. She suggests that Mexican bakers were inspired by the French baguette to create the bolillo and the telera, two loaves which differ primarily in shape--the bolillo being oval and the telera being round. Both breads are crusty on the outside, soft on the inside and, Abanes adds, "a great torta is defined by the bread having enough texture to hold up, being soft enough to bite and large enough to hold a plethora of ingredients."

That may have been the last known printed use of "plethora."

As is almost always the case in Mexican cuisine, these ingredients vary by region and may include roast beef or ham in Guadalajara, carne asada in Monterrey, or turkey in Tijuana. Lettuce, tomato, onion, black or refried beans, avocado and/or jalapenos, may complete your sizable sandwich, which is sometimes dipped in thick salsa for extra spice.

If you try the tortas at tiny Tortas La Hechizara in Dallas, be sure and ask for their potent salsa as well. Ask the proprietor for his recommendation and you will be rewarded with the Torta Milanesa, which is described as chicken-fried steak on the posted menu. The bolillo is properly soft and chewy, the meat tender and the sandwich is indeed quite substantial. But the Habanero-ish salsa takes it to another level entirely, erupting like molten lava across your palate and leaving no taste bud standing in its wake.

Salsa or no, the Torta Milanesa will no doubt appeal to Dagwood.

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Chris Meesey