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Sandwiches : The Lusty Mexican Dagwood

July 05, 1991|PATRICIA QUINTANA and MEG ROSE

Tortas! T-o-r-t-a-s! A husky voice resounds through the bustling streets of Mexico City, heralding the arrival of lunch-hour. In moments, dozens of others join in, peddling the same mouthwatering treats. Tortas. Mexico's lusty rendition of the Dagwood sandwich. A mouthful of flavors; a portable feast.

On Motolinia Street, a cook at Los Pavitos busily prepares the special tortas that have made this tiny storefront eatery a Mexico City landmark. With a huge ladle, he spreads a thin layer of refried black beans on a counter full of split freshly baked bolillos --crusty rolls similar in flavor and texture to French bread (and the key to a truly great torta, some say).

He then heaps on thin slices of roast pork that have been simmering in chile sauce for hours. The masterpiece is topped off with chunks of fresh white cheese, tomato and avocado, a dollop of creme fraiche and a flourish of shredded lettuce and pickled chiles.

As the portly fellow places the finished sandwiches on the window sill, their marvelous odor and dazzling appearance send out Los Pavitos' most effective sales cry by far. In no time, office clerks and construction workers descend upon the torteria, packing it to the rafters and spilling out onto the street in a boisterous line.

Even after lunch, fans of Los Pavitos will keep coming. They'll stop by for a fix on their way home from work and linger at the torteria's rickety tables late at night after making rounds at Mexico City's discos and night clubs.

Tortas are hardly a Mexico City exclusive. In virtually every part of the country you will find these mouthwatering sandwiches peddled from corner stores, markets and makeshift street stands. Some are carried through the streets in brown paper wrappers, ready and waiting for children on their way to and from school.

Crowds clamor around the vendors, calling out their torta orders. The kaleidoscope of fillings yelled out sounds like a roll call of Mexican culinary delicacies . . . breaded veal and refried beans . . . scrambled eggs and chorizo sausage . . . fresh squid in its ink.

As is true with most Mexican dishes, tortas have a distinctive regional twist. On the Veracruz coast, where the region's Spanish and maritime heritage dominate local cuisine, tortas are filled with bacalao stew, a heady concoction of codfish, tomatoes, olives, capers and chile.

In the colonial city of Puebla, tortas are typically prepared with the local semita bread--a robust loaf with a thick crust studded with sesame seeds. The filling of choice is then topped with string cheese, avocado, a slice of white onion, a drizzle of olive oil and the ubiquitous hint of chile--be it the smokey chipotle in adobo sauce or potent jalapeno strips.

Preparing tortas at home can be an elaborate or fairly simple affair. You can go full throttle and create a classic Mexican version, right down to the chicken in adobo sauce and homemade bolillos from scratch. Or you can add some zing to your own sandwiches by adding just a few key garnishes and condiments. Once you taste the difference a handful of pickled chiles or a smear of refried black beans can make, you'll be hard pressed settling for just plain old "ham 'n' cheese" again.

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