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Tortalicious!

Getting to the basics of ungodly Mexican food

Photo by Jeanne RiceThere's working fast food. And then there's what Leopaldo does.

Leopaldo Gonzalez makes tortas at El Gallo Giro, a takeout/market across the street from Mater Dei High School that sells the basic elements of unbelievably delicious Mexican food. Carne asada and carnitas straight from the grill. Tamales and corn tortillas hot and ready. Agua frescas in large chilled jars. Fresh guacamole and salsas.

And then there are the tortas, which brings us back to Leopaldo. I go to El Gallo Giro on Sunday nights as much to watch Leopaldo make tortas as to buy and eat them. A torta is commonly called the submarine sandwich of Mexico, but it's more complex than that. If some sandwich maker at Subway had to do Leopaldo's job, he'd drop in 10 minutes.

El Gallo Giro is a very busy place managed by what might be called "Restaurant Chaos Theory." No center seems to hold. Everyone swirls around you in apparent frenzy; the bright lights and loud mariachi music only add to the madness. For the customer, it's a trip into something like randomness—until a kind of order emerges and you realize just one thing: you must order specific foods at different counter slots. Leopaldo's torta station is the one with a line usually six or seven deep.

No one seems to order just one torta, either. Four or five seems the norm. While Leopaldo scribbles an order on the back of a white paper bag, his other hand tosses some sort of meat onto the adjacent grill. What follows next is almost too fast for the human eye, so we'll use words, which you should proceed to read as quickly as possible: he slices a French roll, flings the bottom half on the grill, applies a layer of guacamole to the top half, lays that half down on the counter, throws on shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato and a relish of onion and jalapeño, and then stabs at the other roll half with total disregard for his bare hand (which I've seen him burn on many occasions both on the grill and with the deep-fry oil he uses to cook; Leopaldo heroically seems to feel no pain), spreads on refried beans, tops it off with a slice of jalisco cheese and whatever meat you ordered, and tosses the two halves together with a final squish. This all takes about seven seconds. And he does it again and again, nonstop (except to refuel the condiment trays), hour after hour. And he probably makes 6, 7 bucks an hour tops doing this.

The tortas Leopaldo makes (I like those made with either carnitas or a fried, breaded sliver of beef called milanesa) are delicious and filling beyond description. The bread is soft and warm, and the freshly cooked meats are savory and perfectly complimented by the condiments. One is too much to eat, but the leftover half makes a great lunch. And the torta costs only $3.49.

I honor Leopaldo every time I go to El Gallo Giro by buying and eating one of his wonderful tortas. But it's impossible to leave with just that. The aroma of fresh corn tortillas fills the place—and with 36 of these warm, soft beauties going for a buck, they're too hard to pass up. And you have to eat them with something, so go get a pint of chunky guacamole with just enough jalapeño for flavor. And how can you not have a horchata? Or a $1.39 strawberry dessert tamale? Sure, the tortas are inexpensive, but I find it impossible to spend less than $20 with each visit, just loading up on the basics.

I swear, once you go here, you'll never want to chow down on Mexican food anywhere else.

El Gallo Giro, located at 1442 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, is open 24/7, baaaaaaayyybee. (714) 549-2011. Lunch for two, $8-$10, food only. Cash only.

 
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