At 2pm on most weekdays, slickly dressed business people stroll Mexico City’s trendy Juarez neighborhood, lending its streets an air of well-heeled, buttoned-up formality. The polished glimmer of their shoes marks them as the nation’s best and brightest, if not among its wealthiest.
These are the white collar workers of the nearby Paseo de la Reforma, let out of their office towers for lunch. Many will choose to spend their breaks cradling greasy street tacos, craning their necks as they eat, careful not to stain or otherwise tarnish their smart suits.Considering this risk-aversion to messy food, it’s surprising to find El Pialadero de Guadalajara, just a few blocks from Reforma, packed with these office workers almost every day of the week. Pialadero’s specialty is one of Mexico’s messiest plates, the torta ahogada (or “drowning sandwich”). It is a meal so sloppy that the restaurant provides diners protective plastic gloves to don while eating it.
Along with tequila and mariachis, tortas ahogadas are one of the most beloved cultural exports from the northern Mexican state of Jalisco, where the city of Guadalajara is located. The dish consists of carnitas, pork slowly cooked in its own fat, stuffed into a crusty roll, or bolillo, which is then doused in a red tomato or chili sauce that pools at the bottom of the plate. Ideally, the moist sauce suffuses the bread’s hard crust, resulting in a semi-mushy outer texture that doesn’t fall apart. Navigating the dish requires a knife and fork and, most importantly, that plastic glove (supplied by Pialadero), which allows diners to grab hold of one end of the torta while slicing off pieces of the other end to eat, making the meal feel like a dissection.
“It’s a hangover dish. Or at least it seems like the dish was invented by a drunk.”
To the uninitiated, the plastic glove might seem like overkill. But the well-baked bolillo fights efforts to dismember it, even when soggy with sauce. At Pialadero, the plastic glove comes from a napkin box full of them, which is thrust at diners by waiters who exhort, “lo necesitas – you need it.”
“It’s a hangover dish,” Aaron Garcia, Pialadero’s owner recently mused to us regarding the origins of tortas ahogadas. “Or at least it seems like the dish was invented by a drunk.” Wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie, Garcia speaks bluntly and wastes few words. When asked what prompted him to open a restaurant in Mexico City and not his native Guadalajara, Garcia responded, “Too much competition. In Jalisco, there are torta vendors underneath your bed.”
According to Garcia, who opened his restaurant in 1998, the key to making a delicious torta ahogada is the bread. Everyday a truckload arrives at Pialadero bearing fresh bolillos baked that morning in Guadalajara, a six-hour drive from Mexico City. Having sampled tortas ahogadas in Jalisco before, we can verify that Garcia’s bolillos are the best we’ve tasted in Mexico City.The rest of the torta experience is just as authentic at Pialadero. The carnitas serve as a savory counterweight to the sweet tomato sauce and the salty bread. The bolillo retains its inner integrity, even as sauce permeates and softens its exterior, so that each bite starts slightly soggy and becomes increasingly bready. The tomato sauce is well peppered, boasting a pinch of vinegar that gives the sauce a piquant highlight before settling into an aftertaste of oregano. The hot sauce served alongside the torta burns the tongue, which is then soothed by the sopping bolillo.
“I’d rather sell nothing than sell something of poor quality,” Garcia told us, a cold seriousness suddenly in his eyes. “That’s why my customers always come back for more.”
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