In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
The angel in the window of Tortisimas, a loose rendering of the Angel de La Independencia that watches over the teeming streets of Mexico City, gestures for passersby to step inside for a taste of tortas, Tortisimas' signature sandwich with roots in Mexico's colonial history. Tortas, popularized by street vendors in that chaotic capital city, range from simple grilled rolls stuffed with meat to dangerously architected agglomerations of processed meats (salchicha almost always indicates hot dogs), eggs fried or scrambled, refried beans, avocados sliced or mashed into guacamole, and an assortment of typical sandwich veggies like tomato, lettuce or onion. Mayonnaise, salsa or some other house sauce undermine the structural integrity of the bread but add a final dose of flavor to what could delightfully but literally be called a hot mess.
The tortas at Tortisimas are definitely of the tidier variety, almost like panini; most of the options listed on the oddly punctuated menu can be picked up easily and eaten without disaster. Toppings and sauces stay neatly tucked into the soft bread, which, while a little floppy, doesn't seem likely to fall apart from the sheer weight of the contents.
The variations on the menu are almost overwhelming; the combinations of cheese, eggs, and meats become repetitive, if varied. I hurriedly selected the Chiva (eggs, chicken, chorizo and cheese) even though I'm not a huge fan of chicken breast. The chorizo packed a good amount of zippy flavor and pork fat, but the chicken was just along for the ride. I tacked on some jalapeño salsa (chipotle salsa is also available) and pickled jalapeño slices to crowd out the bland chicken.
Luckily, Amy and our friend Jill took their time and picked a couple of winners. Jill's Ingrata (deli ham, chorizo, and two kinds of cheese), was a simple ode to an American grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, made lively by the cumin-tinged pork sausage and chipotle salsa. And ingrate that I am, I ate half of her sandwich when she offered me a bite. Amy's Norteña came with the same chorizo cooked into an omelet-style layer of egg and a fistful of tangy queso fresco. On a previous visit, I also demolished the Maluca, a virtual log cabin of sliced franks stuccoed together with jalapeño-studded eggs. Weighed down with a sandwich-and-a-half and sloshing with tamarind agua fresco, I stayed and chatted with my friends until closing time in the cheery and meticulously clean café, whose nod to health in its list of fruit and vegetable juices seems almost comical juxtaposed against the cheeky gluttony of the menu.
Despite having opened several months ago, Tortisimas shows almost no signs of wear and tear, even in the open kitchen where the grills and surfaces are constantly being scrubbed and polished to a shine by any employee not directly involved in the construction of tortas. The black tile and taxi-yellow walls ring with the dialogue of telenovelas blasted from the lone TV, but the place was otherwise quiet.
I love the cultural collisions that happen in big cities where busy folks just need cheap and filling meals. Tortas are an expression of the Distrito Federal and its citizens: a complex layering of bold flavors with fun and unexpected ingredients. Hot dogs and grilled sandwiches may have more northern origins, but as the people of Chicago or Saigon or New York City will surely tell you, the combination of salt and fat from processed meats, the heat from peppers, the tang of vinegar, and the crunch of fresh vegetables almost always result in satisfaction and the kind of local pride generally reserved for a sports team or mom's cooking. Tortisimas gets it right with its take on tortas and should be proud to represent Mexico City in the friendly battle of international street food here on Federal Boulevard.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.