Tortas are a dietary staple for Mexicans, especially those who come from the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) and the state of Mexico. The flexibility of the sandwich and the ease of finding one makes it optimal for any time of day, whether you’re grabbing one on the go for lunch or eating late at night to soak up all the booze.
When Martin and Gloria Ramirez decided to move their family of four from Mexico to Dallas in search of economic opportunity in 2005, they had to find a career in a new country. They landed at a family friend’s place and stayed there until it was no longer possible. It was tough being in a new country and not knowing anyone, they said. In Mexico, you’re constantly surrounded by family and friends, and to be in a new place without a support system was a culture shock.
One day, the family stumbled upon an old gas station and envisioned a place to forge a path toward the American dream.
“My wife came up with the idea,” Martin Ramirez said. “So when we came to the United States, we asked ourselves, what do we know how to do? Tortas. They sold really well over there, and we noticed that there wasn’t any like in D.F."
Within a couple months of arriving in Texas, the family opened a torteria called El Rincón del D.F., “a corner of D.F.”
The Ramirezes say the first years were tough; they’d get bored because no one would stop by. Had it not been for their children, Jessica and Eric, working other jobs to help pay rent and bills, the business wouldn't have lasted, Martin Ramirez said.
They’d give away samples to try to attract customers and sometimes would only sell one or two tortas a day. It was difficult for them to deal with, Jessica McGregor said.
“Nobody knew we were here,” she said. “It’s tough to swallow that you don’t have the best space for people to see you. But little by little, people found out about us by word of mouth.”
It’s a modest place with some tables and chairs, gas station-style refrigerators full of drinks, pictures of Mexico City hanging on the wall and a torta assembly line in the back.
The beloved torta of Chilangos — people who are from Mexico City — is the Cubana. El Rincón del D.F.’s recipe is more like a super Cubana. It’s got ham, split hot dogs, chorizo, Oaxaca cheese, milanesa (breaded meat), avocado, jalapeño, onion, tomato, mayo — all stacked in a bolillo roll.
The Ramirezes have had to evolve their business model as well. While they offer a menu of 24 standard tortas, they say most people go with their gut.
“Originally, we started with the popular ones like in D.F.,” Martin Ramirez said. “With time, people started asking for tortas with the meat we normally used for tacos. So now we've given people the option to custom build their torta if it's not on the menu.”
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The family is hoping that, by February, it’ll be taking the tortas down the road to a new location on Walnut Hill Lane, a more welcoming spot with more parking. When the Ramirezes move, they plan to take their tortas to the next level.
They said they used to daydream about life back in Mexico, but now they dream about their future in Dallas. Throughout it all, McGregor said, working and doing business with family has been a challenge for all of them.
“We all have different approaches,” she said. “But we have the same dream: to transport people to our country through the flavors of our food. When people tell us they haven't had a torta like that since they were in D.F., that's special for us because it also says we're doing a good job.”
El Rincon del D.F., 2630 Walnut Hill Lane