Cafe Society

Ay Caramba! These Mexican sandwiches could use some torta reform

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!

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 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 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.

Despite all the flavorful ingredients, many tortas at Ay Caramba! end up tasting like they, like the guac, are choosing to play it safe. This became increasingly clear the more tortas I ate — and I ate more than I care to remember, day in and day out, sometimes at lunch and dinner on the same day. At Ay Caramba!, flavor-packed salsas come on the side for fear they might be too hot for some palates. The black, condiment-like refried beans are vegetarian so they have a wider appeal, but they're so pasty and meek you can hardly taste them. At other places (Las Tortas, for example), beans are saucy, made of pintos, and good enough to eat by the spoonful, which means they manage to stand out in the crowd. And the fantastic Guadalajaran torta known as the ahogada, made with crusty bread that's drowned in spicy tomato sauce, that you can find at other torterias isn't even on the menu at Ay Caramba! "With our kind of clientele in Cherry Creek, soggy bread would not make sense," Gurevich explains. (You can get a side of the sauce, but neither the menu nor the servers explain how to use it.)

Since he's willing to bend to his audience, I wonder why Gurevich didn't bend a little more. Why not use tortas as a springboard to show off his creativity, displaying more riffs like that arugula? Why not offer whole-grain bolillos, or lunch specials with half a sandwich plus a cup of soup or salad to broaden the appeal for those who don't want to consume a day's worth of carbs in one sitting? It would be easy enough to do; a fine corn chowder and a mixed green salad with charred corn, avocado and poblanos are already on the menu. Or what about borrowing a page from Chipotle and showcasing naked tortas, so the barbacoa and cochinita pibil can shine without the weight of all that bread (or the fear of gluten, which is much more omnipresent these days than Dr. Atkins's concerns)? Surely the clientele would approve of changes such as these. Where the restaurant falls short is on missed opportunities. What's here is perfectly fine, but no reason to shout "Ay caramba!"

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz