“I shouldn’t like this!” I said to myself as I bit off huge, hasty mouthfuls of the torta Cubana at Taqueria El Gallito (403 Havana Street). I’ve never bothered with any kind of sandwich when visiting Mexican eateries in the past, since baguette-like bread doesn't (at least to me) seem to go with Mexican-style spiced meats or salsas. Furthermore, tacos, burritos and saucy enchiladas usually jockey for, and win, my attention — but there was something about the torta Cubana pictured on the fluorescent yellow menu at this Havana Street taqueria that had me intrigued.
The torta Cubana is said to have originated in Mexico City and was first assembled by street-food vendors. Even though the sandwich has a similar name as the Cuban sandwich (or Cubano) that typically contains ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and salami, they're not at all related. Word has it that the torta Cubana was named after the street on which it was first served, and another theory posits that it's named after a Cuban woman’s body, which, like the sandwich, “has everything." (I’m sure Cuban women everywhere are supremely flattered, although — #MeToo).
Objectification aside, the torta Cubana, since it contains myriad random ingredients, probably got its start the way many notorious dishes do, in an effort to reduce food waste by throwing a bunch of day-old ingredients together and hoping for the best. I drew this conclusion when I lifted the massive top piece of thick, fluffy grilled bread on El Gallito's version ($10.50) and found a treasure trove of several seemingly unrelated ingredients: hot dog pieces, chorizo, a fried egg, provolone, queso, carnitas, ham, turkey chunks, avocado, tomato, and even a thin layer of refried beans.
I was nervous as I double-fisted the beastly sandwich for my first bite, because I didn’t expect to enjoy it. However, each mouthful captivated my attention, since there was so much going on between the two pieces of bread: creaminess from the avocado and queso; salty crunch from the fried carnitas; a meaty component from the seared ham, turkey and hot dog; subtle tanginess from the provolone; and a good dose of breakfast burrito from the chorizo, refried beans and egg. The tomato didn’t do much except — as the lone component without salt or fat — momentarily assuage the guilt that ensues after ingesting large quantities of this artery-clogging provision.
I appreciated the brown grill marks on the hot dogs, bits of black on the chorizo and crispy outer rim of the ham, which indicated each ingredient was cooked separately and assembled with some care before taking their place on my torta. Even the thick bun was browned and toasted on the inside with grill lines on the outside, indicating it had been buttered and toasted before receiving its mob of toppings and then crisped on the outside in a sandwich press or on the flat top.
As if this colossal sandwich wasn’t enough, I ordered a taco al pastor ($1.50) to go with it. The meat was mostly fatty but succulent, and the pineapple was grilled and speckled with chile powder. Tacos are offered with or without chopped onion and cilantro (hint: When you're asked for your preference, the answer should always be “with”). The taco was small, but I couldn’t finish it since I’d already mowed down half of the burly torta.
On my second visit, I tried the carnitas plate ($12.99), and since the tacos are so inexpensive, I ordered another side taco ($1.50) with lamb. Although the torta on my first visit contained carnitas, I was glad I tried it solo, because the shredded pork was delicious and definitely worth trying as an individual meal. Large chunks of tender meat emblazoned with crunchy bits of flavorful fat stood effortlessly on their own, but were exquisite when combined with the refried beans, steamed corn tortillas and the downy, orange-hued rice served alongside the porky goodness. The lamb, stained a deep crimson with spices, was a little tough, but mild in flavor (unlike some lamb can be), and the salsas from the salsa bar dolled the taco up nicely.
Speaking of the salsa bar, there’s something you should know: While the food at Taqueria El Gallito can stand on its own, the avocado salsa adds a staggering amount of flavor even where you think no flavor needs to be added. If the restaurant sold this sauce in bottles, you bet I’d be tossing aside the ever-popular rooster sauce to make room in my fridge for the smooth, light-green, zesty topping made by a restaurant named after a rooster. In fact, I fought the urge to fill up several containers to take home for later (since taqueria owners tend to get testy at this practice). Along with the avocado salsa are pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños, pico de gallo, salsa verde and salsa roja, but if you don’t have time to fill up salsa cups, at least make sure you sample the avocado sauce.
As I ordered, my eyes couldn’t help but be continuously drawn to the homemade tres leches cake ($4.00) in the refrigerator behind the register. Though my stomach repeatedly warned me that I was already full of carnitas, my heart found room for a few bites of the seductive confection. The combination of the buttery, not-too-sweet cake with the whipped cream frosting was scrumptious, and the glistening dollop of crimson strawberry jelly was highlighted amid the considerable vanilla flavor. Surprisingly, the spongy cake was not soggy, despite the inch of milk that rested at the bottom of its plastic container.
A language barrier (my Spanish vocabulary is limited to a few words remembered from high school) prevented me from doing much more than ordering — after hand gestures and pointing to pictures on the menu — food worth coming back for, so I was unable to ask about the name of the restaurant or the reason for its fluorescent green and yellow paint job. But since my two visits to Taqueria El Gallito, I now associate these as symbols signaling patrons that authentic Mexican foods with loads of flavor are plentiful inside, and worth pulling off Havana Street to try.
Taqueria El Gallito is located at 403 Havana Street in Aurora and is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call the restaurant at 303-364-3107 to place advance orders.
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