One Saturday afternoon, I stopped by La Torta Gorda to try its torta de pierna enchilada, or pulled-pork-shank sandwich. That torta produced the kind of buzz that vibrates on its own momentum through the social networks, jangling the food media's buzz detectors. I ordered a torta and sat at the counter to watch its construction. The guy rocking the flat-top grill was the Martha Stewart of short-order cooks. On the left half of his iron rectangle, he had constructed a grid of sandwich fillings, each heap of meat sizzling exactly three inches from its neighbor. The right half was evenly spotted in thick, plate-sized corn tortillas striped in white and green — slices of queso fresco and roasted jalapeños. Every dish completed would start a reorg and a wipedown, yet his movements were as calm as they were quick, without that fussy intensity signaling too much caffeine or OCD.
The sight of so many quesadillas cooking in a small sandwich shop gave me pause, though, so I began to look around. Most of the Mexican-American families sitting in the room weren't eating tortas — they had come for quesadillas and pointy-tipped ovals of masa (ground corn) topped with avocado and egg. I grabbed the menu to look a little closer. Flanking the column of tortas was an equally long list of "Especialidades Poblanas," dishes with names like tlacoyos al albanil, mixiotes de pollo, chicharron in salsa verde, and mole poblano, all of which I ended up trying on subsequent visits.
In a city finally getting the appeal of Yucatecan poc chuc, Jaliscan pozole, Oaxacan tlayudas, and Mexico City-style huaraches, Poblano regional cuisine is still hard to find in the Bay Area. Much of La Torta Gorda's Poblano-style food is comfortably unfamiliar — the same palette of masa, chiles dried and fresh, cactus, and beans that shows up in dishes from all over the country — albeit used in a novel way. Some of the restaurant's food is delicate, some of it dense and dramatically flavored.
La Torta Gorda is basically the Poblano equivalent of the old diner it took over — homey and no-nonsense. It's certainly as attractive as the St. Francis Fountain just a few doors down, if more vibrantly colored. The outside glows with a blue normally seen on macaw feathers and Brazilian butterflies, while the interior is the color of oxblood Doc Martens. The lunch counter, where I sat watching the cooks work, and the Formica tables along the walls date back to the American Graffiti era, spruced up with baroque framed mirrors and golden candelabras that look like they once stood in Maximilian I's imperial residence. In back is a four-table patio ringed by bushes and flowers, a small, quiet square of sunlight.
No oozy strings of jack erupt from La Torta Gorda's quesadillas ($4.25) — they're more composed than that, and I could see why so many people prefer them to the tortas. As the tortilla crisps on the flat-top, the strips of salty queso fresco warm and soften and the fresh epazote leaves and roasted jalapeños bring their deep, vegetal notes. You can order a quesadilla filled with a number of different vegetables — braised squash flowers, chunks of nopal cactus that always remind me of long-cooked green beans, the loamy, inky corn fungus known as huitlacoche — or braised meats like the tinga, shredded chicken braised in a tomato-chipotle sauce. I could also see why plate after plate coming from the kitchen contained tlayocos al albanil ($7.45), a sort of Mexican eggs Benedict: Liquid-yolked eggs jiggle atop masa cakes stuffed with black bean paste, with creamy avocado slices and finely chopped red onion layered between.
The flavor of the quesadillas and the tlayocos flared when I spooned tangy, char-flecked salsa verde overtop, and exploded when I discovered that a squeeze bottle the waiter brought over contained a brick-red chipotle salsa. Smoky and intense, pulsing with spice, practically feral, it was so good I began dabbing it on everything else, from rice to tortas.
There are dishes so familiar they barely bear mentioning — a chicken-mushroom soup ($5.95 small, $7.45 large) with a clear, earthy broth; chicken-stuffed enchiladas rojas ($8.95) coated in a thin, fiery chile sauce. The unfamiliarity of the chicharron ($8.95) may breed contempt for people afraid of a little braised pork skin; those who aren't will find the spongy strips of meat saturated with tomatillo sauce, its tartness the perfect foil for the rich meat. The mixiotes de pollo ($11.95), an oily stew of chicken thighs and chunks of nopal cactus steamed in a purse of papery maguey leaves, was a dish I'd never seen before, but not so fascinating that I'd eat it again.
La Torta Gorda's cult torta with pierna ($5.75 small, $7.95 large) — grill-pressed and brown-striped, stuffed with pork braised until every fiber floats apart from the others — is good, though I prefer the sandwich with carnitas ($5.75 small, $7.95 large), whose meat is infused with the deeper, toastier flavor of lard browned in the pot. Better still was a Mexico City specialty, the pambazo ($5.95), a stubby little roll painted with a thin, red chile sauce and then recrisped on the griddle. The cooks stuff the roll with potatoes and chorizo, squirt on just enough sour cream to make it two kinds of decadent, and finish it off with a bright-green fringe of lettuce. You need a napkin to eat La Torta Gorda's pambazo, but it doesn't ring your mouth in oily fire like some other local torta shops' versions do.
And then there's La Torta Gorda's mole poblano ($12.95), an iconic regional dish now served in every corner of Mexico and many sit-down restaurants in San Francisco. Mole poblano is a dish so famous it has earned itself a creation myth — supposedly concocted by the nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa in the city of Puebla — and many have seen its blend of toasted chiles, seeds, spices, herbs, and dried fruits as a metaphor for Mexican cuisine in its entirety, the fusion of the European and the indigenous. Mole poblano, too often, is the Muzak version of itself, too sweet, too soft, too chocolaty. In La Torta Gorda's mole, the potency is restored: the toasted chiles reign over the fruit and ground nuts in the sauce, and their faint, charry bitterness melds to the late-hitting note of dark chocolate. Cinnamon floats up, brushes the nose, and flees, then returns. It's a good mole, one that keeps you scooping up bits of sauce, barely paying attention to the braised chicken coating it. Sandwiches may be the lifeblood of La Torta Gorda, but the mole poblano is its heart.