The thrill of hanging out in Oaxaca’s historic city center is something that has always made me happy since I was young. Almost every afternoon, I would walk, together with my best friend, to the colonial-style streets of downtown. From buying comics to returning a book to the library, there was always some reason to go to El Centro.
Before heading back home, one of our rituals was to stop at the long-gone La Esmeralda, our favorite downtown convenience store. We would sidle up to the vintage wooden counter and order a cold soda, a spicy tamarind candy or a torta, a savory sandwich that, along with tacos and tamales, forms the backbone of Vitamin T, as this holy trinity of Mexican grab-and-go foods are often referred to.
However, as practical and portable as it can be, a good torta is far from a dull meal. On the contrary, the two pieces of bread often contain a universe of flavors, despite the simplicity of the ingredients used. “The key to a memorable torta is the quality of the ingredients,” explains 48-year-old Marcelo Aquino Jr., the owner of Tortas Oaxaqueñas – the tortería, located in one of the busiest parts of downtown Oaxaca, has been satisfying old and new clients for 37 years. It’s a place my friend and I found one day when trying to recreate the pleasure of devouring our ritualistic torta, the taste of our childhood adventures in El Centro.
This family business has a story as fabulous as its tortas. “In 1985, after a long career in the judicial system, I decided to retire and open a convenience store next to one of Oaxaca’s most popular radio stations,” recalls 85-year-old Marcelo Aquino Sr. “After a while, the station workers, who would often buy water, chips or other products, started asking if we had something they could eat easily back in their offices. It occurred to me that tortas were the perfect solution. The next morning my wife and I made around 15 tortas and offered them to our clients.” The first day, the tortas sold out within 20 minutes, so the next day they made even more, and they sold out again.
Eventually one radio presenter was so enchanted by their tortas that he began to send his regards to Don Marcelo and his wife, 80-year-old Rosita Cruz, over the airwaves. Word of these tortas spread like wildfire, and people started going the store solely for sandwiches. Don Marcelo and Doña Rosita decided to expand the business and rented a bigger space next door. The rest is history.
Tortas are consumed across Mexico, with components varying region to region. Typically the sandwich consists of a bolillo (a type of Mexican roll that slightly resembles a baguette); tomato and avocado; a spread of some sort, such as butter, mayo or bean paste; a protein, usually ham, pulled pork, beef steak, chicken breast, and/or cheese; and something spicy, either pickled chiles or salsa. In Oaxaca, torterías make use of local ingredients such as Oaxacan beef sausage; quesillo (string cheese); spiced black bean paste and salsas made with local spices and chiles, like pasilla and chipotle.
“Consistency is the philosophy of our lives and our business. My parents have always been careful when it comes to buying the best quesillo, the freshest beans for our paste, the best chiles for our salsa. They want the tortas to have the exact same balance that hypnotized our first clients. They are true guardians of flavors. My role now is to continue with this mission. I am a guardian as well,” Marcelo Jr. says.
Marcelo Jr. is right that Tortas Oaxaqueñas excels in perfectly pairing ingredients. However, there are two in particular that rise above the rest: the bread and their secret salsa. “We serve cold tortas – they are not grilled – so using fresh bread is crucial. Since freshly baked bolillos have the perfect texture, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, there is no need for heating them,” adds Doña Rosita. It’s an approach that has historic echoes: Armando Martinez Centurión, a young man in Mexico City who is believed by some to be the creator of the torta, started selling freshly baked bolillos stuffed with ham or pork cheese, tomato, and avocado in the late 19th century.
Tortas Oaxaqueñas remains faithful to this tradition, hence the importance of using only the freshest ingredients, a standard that Don Marcelo has long upheld. “We buy our ingredients everyday: the quesillo, the chiles for the salsa, the vegetables, even the beans. We prepare our bean paste from scratch every day. If you open our fridge at the end of the day, you will see it’s empty. There are no leftovers,” adds Marcelo Jr.
When it comes to their unique flavors, the sharp yet sweet chipotle salsa plays an important role. “We also offer pickled jalapeños, but people have always preferred our salsa. It is our secret, and I would say it brings the whole torta together,” Doña Rosita explains. The crispiness of the bread, along with the fresh milky flavor of quesillo, juicy vegetables and the silky salsa make these tortas sing.
“We cannot picture any lunch break in this country without a torta. It is the ultimate Mexican version of fast food.”
“Tortas have gained an important role in Mexico’s everyday dietary habits. They are a constant in our lives. We cannot picture any lunch break in this country without a torta. It is the ultimate Mexican version of fast food,” says Don Marcelo. It’s a dish that not only represents the union of two cultures – the ingredients are both Native and European – but also appeals to people from all walks of life: laborers, office workers, busy executives, students, picnic-goers, travelers.
To match their wide-ranging clientele, the menu at Tortas Oaxaqueñas is equally expansive: milanesa de pollo (breaded chicken breast, with or without quesillo), pierna adobada al horno (pork leg slowly baked with the house-special adobo) and quesillo (for vegetarians). The signature torta, however, was created by Don Marcelo himself and later copied by many other torterías across town: “La Oaxaqueña” (quesillo, crispy pork skin and Oaxacan sausage).
Just as charming is the selection of soft drinks, many of which are not easily found in the city. Boings and chaparritas are fruit juices and flavored carbonated drinks, respectively, made by Mexican independent companies that struggle to compete with the monopoly held by transnational companies. “In the spirit of honoring the old school in every aspect, we decided to sell these drinks too. These drinks take me back to my childhood, but they also give me the satisfaction that we are supporting national businesses,” says Marcelo Jr.
It’s clear that the shop is much more than a business. “There are customers who saw me grow up, and now I see them getting older. We don’t see each other as customer-vendor, we are more like a big family,” Marcelo Jr. adds.
And the family keeps growing, with younger generations also becoming devoted followers. After all, this is the reason why my friend and I are clients – in our search for a torta like the ones we adored eating as kids, we found a place that not only provided similar flavors but also served as a portal back to childhood, a time when life was joyful and carefree. In times like these, finding things that ground us and remind us how good can life be is as crucial as filling your stomach with a comforting torta.