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Ay Caramba! These Mexican sandwiches could use some torta reform

See also: A closer look at Ay Caramba!

Ay Caramba! These Mexican sandwiches could use some torta reform
Mark Manger
The barbacoa (front) and cochinita pibil tortas at Ay Caramba! See also: A closer look at Ay Caramba!

Ten years ago, getting one of the legions of Atkins adherents to eat a slice of bread was like trying to talk your way out of a parking ticket: impossible. I've tried many times and lost on both accounts, as recently as this morning, when a guy wrote me a ticket while watching me run to the car. But as the millennium has receded, carbophobes — if not meter maids — have mellowed, and flour is everywhere: in blistered-crust pizzas, housemade pastas and, increasingly, the hefty Mexican sandwiches known as tortas.

Tortas are nothing new. In Mexico City, they are common street food, filled with breaded steak, chorizo, even pineapple and ham. Made on puffy white bread, layered with ingredients such as tomatoes, pickled jalapeños and refried beans and griddled until toasty, these sloppy sandwiches aren't new to Denver, either. What is new, however, is the way that torterias have sprung up where you'd least expect them, everywhere from Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Cherry Creek North.

At O'Hare, Tortas Frontera is part of Rick Bayless's empire. Denver's latest torta outpost, Ay Caramba!, comes from Alex Gurevich, whose Limón was an Uptown hot spot when it opened seven years ago. But Gurevich's latest venture is nothing like the upscale Latin American restaurant the veteran restaurateur is best known for, nor does it resemble Cherry Creek's other Mexican haunts, including Margs Taco Bistro and Machete, which draw stylish, tequila-drinking crowds — and, in Machete's case, to a spot just a few doors down from Ay Caramba!

See also: A closer look at Ay Caramba!
Mark Manger
See also: A closer look at Ay Caramba!
Mark Manger

Location Info

Map

Ay Caramba!

2817 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Central Denver

Details

Ay Caramba!
Fully dressed guacamole $6.50
Corn and poblano chowder $4
Caramba salad $7.50
Cochinita pibil torta $7.75
Milanesa torta $8
Barbacoa torta $7.75
Queso con rajas torta $7.25
Choriqueso torta $7.50
2817 East Third Avenue
303-284-2052
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

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Gurevich put together the concept for Ay Caramba! almost on a whim, when Bisque, his ex-wife's restaurant, closed last summer, leaving him responsible for the space. A couple of attempts to sell it fell through, so on the advice of a friend (Jorge Alonso, who owns Vinue, also on East Third Avenue), he decided to give tortas a try. And why not? Not only are carbs back in, but so are sandwiches, with sausage and meatball shops popping up all over. With Gurevich's background, the jump to chile-spiked, crema-slathered sandwiches wasn't a large one. But with all that going for it, Ay Caramba! falls short of the "Holy cow!" experience it should be.

Part of this stems from the room itself. Though updated, the boxy, two-story space lacks atmosphere; its bright-orange walls and a few black-and-white prints wouldn't be out of place at a national chain. The fact that there's an upstairs bar, a family-friendly patio and table service does little to change the eat-and-leave-quickly vibe. And with fewer than a dozen sandwiches, plus appetizers and sides, on the menu, Ay Caramba! seems like a round peg in a square hole, a fast-casual concept forced into a sit-down setup. Gurevich admits that if the opportunity to expand ever arises, "quick casual would be good for that." As it is, servers spend as much time explaining that this is a sandwich place as they do refilling water glasses — which is often, given the house-fried chips and charred tomato and tomatillo salsas.

Considering Gurevich's background, it's no surprise that the ingredients here are high-quality, scratch-made and thoughtfully prepared. Poblanos are roasted in-house, then mixed with caramelized onions in the topping known as rajas. Puffy bolillo, the hoagie-like bread at the base of all the sandwiches, is slathered with cilantro butter, not regular butter or margarine, before hitting the griddle. Jarred mayonnaise is eschewed in favor of crema, the tangy, crème-fraîche-like spread.

These touches help make for some tasty sandwiches, particularly the cochinita pibil, with pork marinated overnight in orange juice, achiote paste and cinnamon, then braised in banana leaves for another twelve hours until the meat picks up all that fruit and spice. Just as good is the barbacoa, with a thick layer of pulled beef, cilantro crema, shredded cabbage and avocado. The meat is pleasantly sweet — not in a sugary, ketchupy kind of way, but from the inherent mellowness of the chiles (guajillo, árbol and especially the ancho) used to make the sauce.

Another sort of chile, the habanero, adds not sweetness but heat to an aioli slathered on the choriqueso; anything tamer would be lost under the spicy, grease-dripping chorizo that lends the torta its name. The queso part of the sandwich's moniker is merely along for the ride, silenced by both meat and sauce. The cheese in the queso con rajas suffers a similar fate, overpowered by the rajas (poblanos and onions). But that isn't necessarily bad, considering the grilled cheese's odd, fried-egg-like texture.

Compared to other tortas, the milanesa feels light, with chicken that's pounded thin, coated in bolillo crumbs and fried. (Lightness is relative, though; a fried-chicken sandwich will never be in the same league as hummus or shaved turkey.) While tortas made from fried meats are standard in Mexico, it's the peppery arugula standing in for lettuce that makes this Americanized version so good. Also Americanized, but less inspiring, is the guacamole, a smooth, bland spread that needs to become better friends with garlic, lime and salt. Perhaps Gurevich leaves it simple so as not to compete with the flavors in the "fully dressed" version, but I'd just as soon leave off the queso fresco, pepitas, bacon, corn kernels and rajas, and use my chips to scoop up a green mash with a little more zip.

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11 comments
meanstreetsofsouthdenver
meanstreetsofsouthdenver

This review did send me over to Las Tortas so thanks a lot, I'll probably gain 30 pounds on the ahogadas I'll be picking up in the next 6 months, over there.

Jean Hawk
Jean Hawk

Too close to downtown..a place I never go because I hate it.

cngrsprk
cngrsprk

Your review is spot-on. Boring, lacking flavor and not creative. Your description of the "guacamole" was great... when we visited during their first week open I figured we made a mistake by ordering it without going whole-hog. Apparently they still hadn't invested in garlic, salt, limes or jalapeno by the time you visited!

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

Everything else gets gentrified in Cherry Creek North, so I suppose even the humble torta is fair game. But I'd love to see the look of horror on the faces of the Chico's ladies as they stare down a real ahogada or a cubana piled with sliced hot dogs, deli ham and milanesa (which really needs to be steak, not chicken).

Foodgirl
Foodgirl

Rajas are not poblanos and onions....they are prickly pear cactus strips pickled with onions. If you are going to review this type of food, please do some research.

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

@Jean Hawk So where are the best spots for tortas in your neck of the woods? And how far do you have to get from downtown before the hatred cools?

TheJeff
TheJeff

@Foodgirl Yep, it looks like it is Foodgirl who needs to do her research.  

Rajas are "strips," and I've almost always heard the term used to refer to strips of chiles (usually poblanos).  It's neat that somebody made her strips of pickled cactus and called it rajas, but it's hardly a universal preparation.  Googling the term will get you almost nothing but poblano references.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@Foodgirl

Rajas con crema is the name given to a Mexican dish consisting of sliced Poblano pepper with cream -- the name literally means "slices" in Spanish. 

It is very popular in Mexico, particularly in the central and southern parts of the country. It is one of the dishes most commonly served during taquizas (taco parties), together with tinga, mole, chicharrón, and papas con chorizo.

Preparation of the dish involves roasting, peeling and slicing the peppers, sauteing them together with sliced onions, and simmering the mixture with cream

Denver Dave
Denver Dave topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay @Foodgirl Donkey is correct about rajas being slices of chiles poblanos often served con crema but they are also found canned and pickled with onion and carrots (rajas en escabeche).

 
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