Restaurant Reviews

Pork and Beans on a Bun

The steak, onion and raw jalapeño sandwich called the "Pepito" at Tortas El Angel in the Heights was my unexpected favorite. The crunchy fire of the chiles sparked every bite of tender steak, soft bread, mushy avocado and refried beans, all of which made for a remarkable sandwich.

The fried shrimp torta slathered with salsa would have been excellent if the shrimp hadn't been quite so overcooked. But the real reason for my visit was the hamburguesa torta, and it was a bust. The two skinny burger patties served on my gigante-size "Tortaburger" were dry and tough.

Tortas come in regular and gigante sizes at El Angel, and every sandwich comes on fresh telera bread spread with chipotle mayo, refried beans and avocado slices and topped with lettuce, tomato, onions and fresh or pickled jalapeños. These sandwich ingredients are beloved by connoisseurs of Mexican tortas, but the combination tastes odd to some mainstream palates.

I brought home three sandwiches from Tortas El Angel and served them for dinner recently. The "California," a chicken, melted cheese and avocado torta that I expected to be a big hit, was judged too bland by my tablemates, and I had to agree. A generous dose of the salsa that comes in little plastic containers with every to-go order helped a lot. (The verde sauce was great on the chicken; the red salsa is hellishly hot.)

The sandwich that I liked best on that taste test was called the "Maestro." It's a variation on the Cuban sandwich made with sliced pork, a bread crumb-covered fried Milanese cutlet and thin slices of salchicha, or hot dog. My tablemates found the mass of hot dog pieces entirely too weird. Their favorite torta was a scrambled egg-and-­fajita combination called the "Norteña."

"The bread is too soft, and the whole thing is just too mushy," one diner replied when I asked for an overall impression.

Tortas can also be made on crunchier bolillo rolls, but telera bread is pretty standard. If your sandwich tastes are based on crusty baguettes such as those used for Louisiana poor boys or Vietnamese banh mi thit, then you have to reset your expectations. Beans on a sandwich is a concept that also takes some getting used to. I like crunchy baguette sandwiches, but I have learned to love telera bread sandwiches too.

In fact, Tortas El Angel uses some of the best telera bread in the city. It's so good, I asked where they got it so I could take some home to use for hamburger buns. (An oblong eight-inch roll cut in half fits burgers just right.) The waitress handed me a phone number. The man I called explained that he only baked bread for a few large-volume customers. He recommended I buy my telera bread at El Bolillo on Airline.

I wasn't crazy about tortas when I ate my first one in the mid-1980s. Some Mexico City entrepreneurs had opened a fast food-style torta operation in Austin. I tried the grilled chicken version and found it underwhelming. The sandwich shop went out of business after less than a year, and I blamed it on a lackluster product.

But tortas wouldn't go away. While I was in Portland, Oregon, writing an article about taco trucks around the country, my guide took me to a truck called La Catrina that specialized in tortas. It was their torta Cubana, a Cuban sandwich à la Mexicana, that won me over. Without a source for telera bread, the taco truck used Kaiser rolls. Stuck together with melted American cheese were layers of ham, steak Milanese, headcheese, scrambled eggs, a hot dog split into lengthwise quarters, tomato, avocado, pickles, jalapeños and onions. I found the use of sliced hot dogs quite ingenious back then. By now, I have seen the wiener wedges used on tortas so many times, I have come to recognize them as just another cheap cut of meat.

I haven't found a torta Cubana in Houston to top the one in Portland, but I have found some awesome tortas here. My favorite torta of all time was a blackboard special called the "Torta Lomito Argentino" at Mexico's Deli on Dairy Ashford. The sandwich was made with a thin churrasco-style slice of beef tenderloin, a fried egg, a slice of ham, mozzarella, avocado and tomato on a telera roll spread with refried black beans. They may still sell them for all I know.

Adding a fried egg improves almost any torta. I recently had an outstanding egg-topped torta at Tortas Las Llardas, a Houston torta chain with several locations. The torta "La Ecatepec" had a Milanese cutlet, ham, a fried egg and melted cheese on it, along with the standard condiments.

"La Famosisima Cubana" at Tortas Las Llardas was the worst Cuban-style Mexican torta I have had. There was a little sliced pork on there, but mainly it was a sliced-hot dog sandwich. I also sampled a nasty slice of tres leches cake from Tortas Las Llardas. It was sweetened with all the usual milk products, but it also had a disgusting amount of buttercream frosting piled on it. That's butterfat overkill.

I had gone to Tortas Las Llardas looking for a truly great torta hamburguesa. I had read about their hamburguesa estilo-D.F., or Mexico City-style hamburger, with bacon and a grilled pineapple slice on top. I liked the unusual burger, which came with a large, juicy hamburger patty. But as it turned out, the burger was served on a bun without the avocado and beans, so I'm not sure it even qualified as a torta. If you know of a great tortaburger, let me know. I'm still on the lookout.

I am thinking of going back to Tortas El Angel and asking for a double meat tortaburger. And if I could convince them to also cook the burger patties a little juicer, we might have a winner. Everything else about El Angel's tortaburger is perfect.

There's a lot to like about this humble little sandwich shop on North Shepherd. The Pepito and the Maestro were standouts, and I am looking forward to trying the fajita-and-melted cheese sandwich. (I wonder if they would add a fried egg to any of these for a little extra.)

Once you embrace the torta, you will find that various versions of the sandwich can be quite impressive. At five bucks, they are also a great deal on dinner. Yes, tortas are mushy, but so are hamburgers. (Which is why I think a hamburguesa torta is such a great idea.)

The number of new torta shops opening around town suggests that the Mexican sandwich is gaining in popularity — maybe mushy is the next big thing.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh