Is it possible to crave something you’ve never tasted? Could you ever have an irrational, stalker-like obsession with a dish you’ve never encountered but just know you’re destined to love? I have.
My obsession began several years ago, when I lived in California. Flipping mindlessly through the local weekly tabloid one day, I spotted a brief review in the dining section that stopped me in my tracks: it waxed eloquent about tortas ahogadas, wonderfully drippy, incendiary Mexican sandwiches offered by a taco truck in a working-class neighhborhood not far from me.
At that moment my obsession was born. Everything about that sandwich spoke to me in a powerful, primal way. The torta ahogada, the review said, consists of a dense, crusty roll, split and filled with chopped or sliced pork , tangy pickled onions, and optionally, a thin layer of refried beans. This alone would be tasty enough, but the defining feature of the sandwich – and the one that now fuels my daydreams – is that the already sumptious sandwich is drenched with ladlesful of thin, fiery tomato- and chile-based sauces. (Ahogada means “drowned” in Spanish; at that truck, the review said, the sandwich is served in a styrofoam bowl rather than on a plate – the better to contain those copious drips of spicy sauce.) And yes, you’re supposed to eat this with your hands.
I had to have one.
In my mind, I could feel the crunchy crust of that roll giving way under my teeth to the firm, spongy crumb soaked in savory meat juices and fiery chile sauce. I could taste the tangy snap of the onions against the buttery succulence of slow-cooked pork and the creaminess of the beans. I could feel the slow burn of chiles de arbol on my lips, a sensation that always makes me happy.
Then I pictured myself trying to eat that darned thing with my bare hands while balanced on the hood of my car in a neighborhood known for gang conflicts. If I were an eager gang initiate who had to pick low-hanging fruit for some face-saving ass-kicking, there’d be no easier target than a skinny middle-aged Asian woman with both hands occupied by a sandwich.
I chickened out. And regretted that decision ever since.
My cowardice went on to haunt me. From then on, the fates taunted me with constant sightings of blog posts and magazine articles mentioning tortas ahogadas – the best and most famous ones, I learned, are found in Guadalajara, where they are a local specialty. But no other places within reasonable driving distance served them. And a year after my lust was kindled, I got a job in small-town Florida, where just finding a decent taco is cause for celebration.
My lust remained unrequited. Finally, I had enough. Last week, a combination of prolonged cold weather, a mostly vegan post-holiday diet, and a seemingly perpetual string of bad luck made me desperate for some culinary comfort. Like many people, I find slow-cooked meats and good crusty bread fantastically comforting. But unlike most people, I also find solace and catharsis in chiles, the hotter the better. Their vibrant colors and flavors simply electrify me when my spirits are sagging. And chomping down on a big mouthful of edible explosives when I’m down feels like yelling a defiant “F- you!” to the cosmos: You think you can take me down? I can eat THIS and guess what, pal, it only makes me stronger!
But the only way I was going to get my torta ahogada fix was if I made it myself. So I did. But before I did, I had to research how exactly to go about doing it. And I discovered the following:
The sauces: There are actually two separate sauces involved in a traditional torta ahogada. This is because the sandwich is an inherently welcoming and democratic dish: by convention, diners choose how hot they want it, and servers calibrate the proportion of its two brothy sauces – a thin, savory tomato broth and an intense puree of chiles de arbol – to each diner’s requirements. The truly crazy can go with just the chile sauce (this is a step too far even for me). But timid palates can choose just the tomato sauce and still have a splendidly messy and comforting meal. A mix of 2 parts tomato sauce to 1 part chile sauce is plenty hot for most people.
The bread: According to Cristina Potters, author of the blog Mexico Cooks!, an authentic torta ahogada is served on a birrote salada, a kind of dense, crusty roll almost impossible to find outside Guadalajara. I didn’t even try finding one here in the Florida swamps. The second-best thing would be any roll dense and resiliant enough not to dissolve the minute it hits the sauce. I ended up using Mexican-style telera rolls, which weren't perfect (they're not crusty and a they're a bit softer than I would have liked) but they did the job.
The meat: Pork is traditional, but I’ve seen mention of versions made with beef. Potters calls for chopped freshly made carnitas (fried pork chunks) in her version of the recipe. I love carnitas, but I didn’t feel like spending the time (or calories) on a big ole batch of deep-fried meat. So instead, I used the need for cooked pork as an excuse to try Mark Bittman’s slow-roasted pork shoulder recipe. This produced WAY more meat than I’ll need for a few sandwiches, but a supply of high-quality roast pork in the freezer is never a bad thing.
TORTAS AHOGADAS (“DROWNED SANDWICHES,” GUADALAJARA STYLE)
Adapted from Mexico Cooks!
6 dense, crusty sandwich rolls
3 cups warm chopped or sliced cooked pork
1 batch tomato sauce
1 batch chile sauce
1 batch pickled onions
refried beans as needed (optional)
For the tomato sauce:
1-1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
1. Cook the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and bay leaf in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender.
2. Drain the vegetables, reserving the cooking water. Remove the bay leaf and blend the vegetables in a blender until smooth. Add cooking water as needed to obtain a thin sauce. You should have about 3 cups of sauce.
3. Strain the sauce through a fine-meshed straining, pressing on the solids to extract as much sauce as possible. Add salt to taste.
For the chile sauce:
1-1/2 cups dried chiles de arbol, rinsed and de-stemmed
2 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon oregano
2 whole cloves
Salt to taste.
1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, stir in the chiles, cover, and turn off the heat. Let the chiles simmer until softened, about an hour.
2. When the chiles are soft, drain them, reserving the cooking water. Put the chiles and the remaining ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth, adding cooking water as needed to dilute the mixture to a thin sauce. You should have about 3 cups of chile sauce. Add salt to taste.
For the pickled onions:
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1. Toss the onions with the salt until it coats the onions evenly. Place the onions in a colander or strainer and set the strainer over a bowl. (The bowl will catch the juices drawn from the onions by the salt.) Allow the onions to sit for half an hour or more, until they sweat and look wilted.
2. Rinse the onions thoroughly under cold water to remove the salt. Squeeze out any excess water and place the onions in a clean bowl. Stir in the vinegar and allow the onions to rest for at least 15 minutes before service.
To assemble the sandwiches:
1. Split the rolls, heat them in a low oven, then spread each with a thin layer of warm refried beans if you're using them, then fill each with about 1/2 cup of the pork and some of the onions.
2. If needed, gently reheat the sauces. Place the sandwiches in shallow bowls or plates with deep rims. Cover each sandwich with a generous portion of the sauces. (The proportion of hot sauce to tomato sauce should be up to each diner.) There should be about 1/2 cup of sauce for each sandwich.
3. Serve immediately with extra sauce on the side and a big pile of napkins.