When expectations are low, one of two things can happen: You can either get sucked into a vortex of disappointment or you can be buoyed on a wave of surprise at the simple pleasures found in the least likely of places. I certainly wasn't expecting much from La Torteria, wedged as it was among a row of shabby storefronts cluttered with abandoned shopping carts, weathered tables that were never intended for outdoor use, and dusty windows obscured by hand-lettered signs. Still, Thai Bao just a few doors down had provided a delightful lunch in a well-run and friendly atmosphere, so I wasn't in a hurry to cast a quick judgment on this little Mexican sandwich shop.
First on the list of surprises was a barrel full of ice water and well-chilled beers. The counter clerk simply wheeled it in my general direction so I could point out my preference. Dewy cans of Tecate in hand, I gave my full attention to the immense square footage of menu space above the counter and along the adjoining wall. Lists of platillos (combination plates with meat, rice, beans and tortillas), taquitos (nothing more or less than little tacos), various permutations of tortas and more crowded each other for space. Heaps of blistered patos de puerco (pig feet) and strips of chicharrones crackled under a hot lamp. Another surprise: hand-written signs proclaiming that certain items could be purchased in bulk by the pound, including carnitas, those massive curls of chicharrones, and -- most unexpectedly -- manteca de puerco, house-rendered lard. This all made sense considering that the house specialty, Michoacan-style pork carnitas, requires churning through a lot of pork and pork fat. Carnitas in Michoacan are cooked in a process somewhere between a confit and an out-and-out deep-fry. Marinated hunks of pork are bathed in hot lard at a low enough temperature to result in fork-tender chunks and shreds while giving a bit of crisped chew to the browned outer layers. Texture from plate to plate varies by the time of day, and the particular piece of pork you've been served could range from succulent and falling apart interior muscle that seems almost steamed to jagged and salty outer layers that could be the photo illustration in the culinary encyclopedia entry for Maillard Reaction. My friend Dave cut to the chase by ordering a platillo of carnitas, along with a couple of chorizo taquitos. Amy added to the pork celebration with an order of gorditas stuffed with more carnitas. Considering the name of the place, I went with a torta, this time one named for the forbidden dance of love: the Lambada. If you never make it to La Torteria but the combination of scrambled egg, chorizo and pierna (roast pork leg) sounds too good to pass up, take comfort in the fact that most torta slingers recognize that a Lambada is always these three ingredients. And what a glorious combination, with soft-cooked eggs, uniquely spiced chorizo either made in-house or sourced from a local specialist so that delicate notes of lime and fennel came through the intense dried red chile, and pork leg similar in texture to the roast pork common to Cuban sandwiches. Wrapped in foil but oozing avocado and butter, the Lambada was multi-napkin food.
As at most restaurants on Federal, there always seems to be an inverse relationship between the messiness of the food and the quality of the napkins; I shredded my way through a stack of the gauzy little rectangles before feeling moderately cleaned up.
The soft and delicate carnitas on my companions' plates hid a subtle hint of seasoning beneath the intense pork flavor. Despite being cooked in fat, the carnitas were not greasy, but sported just enough fat and juices to maintain succulence. So much pork, even when properly cooked, requires at least a little heat and acidity; a charred chile salsa from the salsa bar proved a perfect match.
It's not enough to glance through the door and quickly tiptoe away, as I witnessed from a window-side table, allowing our years of prejudice to steer our feet away from the unfamiliar, the intimidating or the less than polished. Corporate money can put a shine on the blandest, most over-processed and packaged foods, but sometimes all the money goes just to staying afloat and making good food from scratch because it's the food you love to cook and the food your customers love to eat. La Torteria bustles with energy -- and a little chaos -- because the food draws people in, not because they're making tacos out of waffles or giving away free drinks with combo meals. But then again, I'm on a mission, so I won't be deterred by my own doubts and preconceived notions. Hopefully, I've done the hard part just by opening the door.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.