It’s a common sight on roadways on both sides of the Mexican border: a pickup truck, its bed filled to overflowing, piled high and wide with a vast array of items all “secured” by a single rope. There’s no way that thing should make it another mile without the payload collapsing all over the road. And yet, whether through gravity-defying engineering or odds-defying luck, remarkably, it does.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the torta Cubana at Tortas and Beer in Hillcrest (142 University Ave.). The reference to the classic Cuban sandwich—ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles and mustard on pressed Cuban bread—is obvious and somewhat misleading. This Mexican version includes shredded pork, chicken Milanesa, hot-dog meat, ham, egg, cheese, avocado, jalapeño peppers and more, all on a wonderful telera roll. There’s absolutely no way that this thing should work. It ought to be a culinary yard sale of epic proportions, an offense to God and country. But, remarkably, it works. Savory and rich, with an array of textures, it’s far more wonderful than it figures to be.
The classic starting point for a Mexican torta is the telera (a more ovoid version of the bolillo, Mexico’s version of French bread). The split roll is filled with proteins (hot or cold, shredded or not), cheese, eggs, chiles, sauces and beans. The only real limitation is the imagination. It wouldn’t be incorrect to think of the torta as a taco done up sandwich-style.
Tortas and Beer offers a wide variety of fillings: beef or chicken Milanesa, chicken breast, carne asada, chorizo, egg and cheese, as well as some specialty tortas. One of these, the Hawaiian, features the ham-and-pineapple combination familiar from late-night pizza misadventures, but it doesn’t work quite as well on a torta as on a pizza pie. Where the multiplicity of ingredients on the Cubana achieves a balance of flavors and textures, here the pineapple somehow seems like the odd man out, missing a counterbalance.
Tortas and Beer’s pork offering is significantly more successful. This is the Cubana’s simpler, more direct cousin. Some refer to tortas as Mexican hamburgers, but a better reference point for this dish might be a Mexican pulled-pork sandwich. It’s savory. It’s rich. It’s balanced. The jalapeño’s crunch and bite contrasts with the softer textures of the avocado and the shredded pork, and the avocado’s richness plays off of the tomato, which counters the juiciness of the shredded pork, which is soaked up by the bolillo roll. This may not be Tortas and Beer’s signature sandwich, but maybe it should be.
Tortas and Beer is a new entry on the Hillcrest and San Diego scene, having opened only in July. It offers great value—one torta is, in some cases, more than enough to satisfy two—and great flavor: best sandwich on the planet, Mexican-style.