Ricas Tortas Ahogadas

Photo by Matt OttoThere's a couple of Orange County loncheras trained in the art of the torta ahogada—the tasty, salsa-soaked sandwich native to the Mexican city of Guadalajara that's quite possibly the spiciest foodstuff on earth. Unfortunately, almost all of them turn down the thermostat on the dish until it's a sloppy Joe.

The scene painted on the lunch truck of Ricas Tortas Ahogadas is the first sign that the real, non-assimilated deal is available here: a man spits flames from his mouth while clinging to a half-finished torta. Yup, that'll be you in five minutes, coughing and panting—sans the sombrero, of course. Or maybe not.

A torta ahogada (“drowned torta”) seems harmless enough. It's just a French roll on a plate, humbly dressed with your choice of meat inside and cold onion slices on top. But then the chef ladles on a fierce salsa that tints the bread blood red, so much lava-like salsa that it puddles around the torta; it looks like a burger at a homicide scene. You use fingers instead of fork and knife to tear off torta chunks and dunk them in the salsa pool, as you would a French dip sandwich into au jus. There's no acclimatizing here: each torta ahogada bite seems spicier than the last until your face is shiny with sweat and you're doubled over with heartburn even as you relish the thought of eating this little piece of hell—if hell were curiously sweet—again for tomorrow's lunch.

Ricas Tortas Ahogadas offers no seating except a shade-free street curb where it parks on Santa Ana's Fifth Street, next to a host of auto shops. But this lunch truck is a barrio culinary school: the guys inside slap out your order in minutes, all the while arguing soccer with each other and calling customers primo—cousin. They take care of family here: the French roll for each torta ahogada remains crunchy despite its salsa shower; the chilled onions on top help cool the palate even as they make you wince with their pungency. The salsa scorches, but so subtly that you can still taste nuances of at least three distinct chiles. You can get a torta ahogada with any meat—carne asada, al pastor, chicken—but order it with carnitas, the fatty shredded-pork cut with a sugary flavor that melds well with the salsa.

And whatever you do, don't buy a soda—the carbonation will prolong your sweet, delicious torta ahogada pain for the rest of the afternoon. Unless you're into that sort of thing. In that case, get a mandarin Jarritos.



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