When it comes to Mexican fast food some folks are crazy for California style burritos. Others enthuse over tacos, which have practically become a fetish item over the last few years. I’m down with both, but my particular weakness is for the torta sandwich. The premise of a Kaiser roll smeared with refried beans, stuffed with taco filling, then some avocado, lettuce and onion? Maybe a little tomato, too? Great. Add some queso to make it a cemita? Even better. That’s what I want to eat.
My neighborhood go to for a torta sandwich was Roots and Vines, on Grand Street. . Theirs wasn’t the best I’ve had, but it was flavorful, generous and very close to home. I got a roast pork torta there at least once a month. Unfortunately Roots and Vines stopped making sandwiches a couple weeks ago, leaving me in need of a new local source. This proved a difficult search. Tacos and burritos are all over the place, but tortas, ubiquitous in many Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, are hard to find on the Lower East Side. The best I’ve found yet is an unorthodox example just above Houston Street.
Puebla Mexican Food and Coffee Shop (47 1st Avenue, between 3rd and 4th streets) makes a mean torta, even if the shape is weird. It’s built on a hero roll, and heated in a press, like a Cuban sandwich. The veggies are put on once the sandwich is hot. It’s a generous amount of food for just over $6. It’d make a lunch for one hungry person, or feed two with more restrained appetites. I’m still getting used to the idea of it not being round, but you seem to get more sandwich with the hero roll.
I’ve had the carnitas (pork) and the steak. The carnitas are moist and mildly seasoned. To make up for this, pickled jalapenos are added to the sandwich. So is some queso, technically making it a cemita. The steak version doesn’t come with cheese, just perfectly seasoned (if slightly dry) grilled steak playing against the beans, avocado and veggies. I couldn’t tell you which is better, as both were satisfying. The pork was juicier, but the seasoning on the steak really was superb. I usually wash them down with a refresco de toronja (grapefruit soda), but when the weather warms up Puebla will have horchata (sweet rice and milk drink that tastes like rice pudding), which will be hard to pass up.
The East Village is a little bit of a hike north for me, but I’m of the opinion anything on the east side below 14th Street is still the Lower East Side. That area may be our high rent district, but there’s nothing posh about Puebla. Looking out their window I’ve seen many self-consciously fashionable people walk by, but it seems like this place is invisible to them. Not to me. Until I find more good tortas in the neighborhood, Puebla Mexican Food and Cafe will remain a destination.
Got any tips on local joints that make a good torta? Let me know in the comments section.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
I like discovery. I get excited over good wines from obscure places made from grape varieties I don’t recognize. This can make me insufferable at tastings, because I’m also pretty bad at hiding my enthusiasm. Vestini Campagna, Kajanero, Terre del Volturno 2010 is the kind of wine I get enthusiastic about. This Italian red is a blend of Pallagrello Nero, Casavecchia, Pizzutella and Aglianico grapes. It’s on the bold side, with cherry and spice notes dominating. There is enough power in the tannins that this novel but well-made wine can easily stand up to roast meats, strong cheeses or other hearty foods. $18 at Seward Park Liquors.