When it comes to the Mexican sandwiches known as tortas, I’m a serial monogamist. I’ll find a torteria — you know, the one with the best tortas ever — and faithfully stick with it, at least until my devotion is diverted by the promise of something even better. In my early days, I was true to a little joint in Centennial called Sabor Mexican Grill, primarily because my corporate career kept me on that end of town. Time permitting, I would grab a seat in the barely decorated dining room among the high-school boys (no, there were never any girls with them) who opted almost unanimously for beef-and-bean burritos. Or I’d surreptitiously smuggle a torta back to my cubicle, where I’d wolf it down before anyone had a chance to track the wafting aroma.
After moving to the west side of town, I found love at Tortisimas on Federal Boulevard, with its floppy sandwiches that needed to be cradled delicately to prevent the contents from spilling out. Next came Las Tortugas on West Alameda Avenue, which enticed me with big, aggressive, meaty tortas that were almost too much of a good thing. After that, I moved on to La Torteria, farther north on Federal, where my torta of choice was always the Lambada, with roast pork leg, chorizo and scrambled eggs stacked with a brick mason’s precision between two halves of a telera roll that somehow defied the odds and held the torta together until every bite was gone. But one day, La Torteria was simply gone (it later re-emerged to the north, in Westminster, well outside my normal lunchtime wanderings), and I was forced to moved on.
In between, I’ve flirted with Las Tortas on Leetsdale Drive (delicious, but the crosstown drive precludes long-term commitment) and Torta Grill on East Colfax Avenue (another beauty, but somehow we never clicked). When I make a choice, I stick with that torteria, and generally with a single sandwich there — which is uncharacteristic of my usual lack of brand loyalty when it comes to just about any other form of food or drink.
Recently I’ve found a new flame: a Mexican grill at 3143 West 38th Avenue called Tortas A Toda Madre (or Tortas ATM, for short). I’m not sure how long Tortas ATM has flown its banner here, because I rarely drive this stretch of 38th (the logistics of getting to nearby neighborhoods makes other routes more expedient). Less than two years, certainly — not long enough for that banner to become weather-worn and tattered. The name comes from the Spanish slang phrase a toda madre — which translates roughly to “totally awesome.” That name is also a clear indicator of the restaurant’s specialty (totally awesome tortas), backed by a sign in the window advertising “tortas estilo Juárez.”
Once you’re inside this modest spot, the jolt of frying meats awakens the senses like a punch-drunk boxer whiffing a dose of smelling salts. The long menu of sandwich names and descriptions is overwhelming, so on my first visit I searched for something familiar — something just like my lost love, the Lambada. (Is that just wrong?) The closest equivalent I could find was the Lagunera, which featured the same pierna (pork shank) as my favorite torta from La Torteria — but it diverged from there, with the addition of sliced ham and no eggs to be found (in fact, none of ATM’s tortas contain eggs). Feeling the glare of waiting customers behind me, I made my decision, ordered the torta and grabbed a table.
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The Lagunera turned out to be completely different from my beloved Lambada. Yes, there was pierna, but it was a slab of cured meat, almost like country-style ham steak instead of slow-roasted pork. Atop that, alternating slices of deli-style ham and processed white cheese formed a gooey layer. Avocado, tomato, onion, grilled jalapeño and a generous smear of yellow mustard — which gave the torta a surprising kinship to a Cuban sandwich — rounded out the ingredient roster, all contained within the soft, lightly grilled telera.
The right bread can be critical to a sandwich. Purists will claim that provenance is the most important aspect in international-sandwich mimicry; although I don’t necessarily agree, tortas were invented with specific types of bread in mind. The telera has certain qualities — strength, softness, flexibility — that make it the best, if not the only, bread for the job. ATM’s tortas are big, even intimidating, so the roll needs to be strong enough to withstand the rigors of multiple messy ingredients. But it can’t be a crusty or firm roll, or you’d destroy your gums trying to crunch through the outer shell, and all of the ingredients would squeeze out the sides, leaving nothing but a mess. Miraculously, the telera here flexes enough to accommodate a massive mound of meat, cheese and vegetables without tearing or becoming soggy. The bread’s consistency is just right to yield to human jaws while holding its form. And gently pressed on the griddle (not squashed flat like so many Cubanos), the torta attains a golden-brown crust that adds a toasty note to the competing flavors.
So, layer upon layer of cheap-quality pork, a slurry of molten cheese akin to Kraft Singles, a dollop of guacamole encrusted with a king’s ransom of blazing chiles — and the nostalgic tang of French’s. A disaster, you might assume — but you’d be wrong. I quickly fell in love with the big, sloppy, salty beast, despite more highly pedigreed options (the kitchen also offers single-meat sandwiches with pastor, carnitas or milanesa — all taqueria classics). Finishing my first Lagunera was no easy feat; at certain points I was ready to throw in the napkin. But I kept at it, and was rewarded with a full belly for the rest of the day — thanks also in part to a pint of sweet horchata from a glass jug on the counter.
My new fling promises to become a lasting relationship, and I’ll certainly be true (for now). When I’m away from the Lagunera for too long, I have dreams about it — although a Lagunera for dinner is more likely to induce night terrors. If you go, check out the salsa bar; a smoky ranchero salsa packed with chipotles turned out to be the perfect side for dipping. Tortas ring in at three different price levels: $7.50 for the basics, $9 for the house specials and $10 for three real monsters, including the VIP, piled with turkey tail, ham, cheese and hot dogs. And that’s a toda madre.