Tortas Are in at Drake’s Barrel House

Sometimes called a Mexican French-dip sandwich, the torta is a crusty-outside, fluffy-inside football-shaped bolillo roll.


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The Drake’s Barrel House tortas are delicious.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

If you viewed the vastness of Mexican cuisine through an East Bay lens, you’d see Oaxacan mole, Sinaloan ceviche, and even crispy Pueblan crickets. You’d see tons of burritos. Tacos brittle and soft. Amid all this and a phalanx of burritos, you’d also see tortas.

Sometimes called a Mexican French-dip sandwich, the torta is a crusty-outside, fluffy-inside football-shaped bolillo roll: toasted, sliced, and stuffed — usually to overflowing — with hot or cold contents: traditionally grilled meat, mashed avocado, jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Some also include refried beans and cheese: The posibilidades are endless.

“It’s a nice semiportable food that has a lot of flavor and can be eaten right out of the hands,” said Nat McGowan, head chef at Drake’s Barrel House in San Leandro, which is one of the few sit-down restaurants serving tortas hereabouts.

McGowan first savored tortas as a youth in Baja California, then rediscovered them while living in Philadelphia, whose large Hispanic community hails mainly from Puebla, the torta’s alleged birthplace.

For Drake’s, he created three different styles: Torta de Puerco, filled with salsa verde and slow-roasted, brown-sugar-rubbed pork shoulder; Torta de Pollo, filled with hand-shredded chicken thigh and sliced avocado; and Torta de Hongos, filled with roasted mushrooms and sliced avocado.

All three also contain pickled onion, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and two classic torta condiments: One is cebolla y cilantro, onions and cilantro chopped together. The other condiment is avocado cream. He remembers torta vendors back in Baja making it by mashing avocado flesh with sour cream, lime juice, and Fanta orange soda.

“I skip the Fanta in mine,” laughed McGowan, who simply combines three parts sour cream, two parts avocado, and one part lime juice.

What he likes most about tortas is “the way they mix cultures: You’re using Mexican spices and cooking styles and putting them on a French roll.”

Diversifying matters even further, he buys those rolls at a Vietnamese bakery in East Oakland, near his home, “where there’s always a huge line every morning of people awaiting their daily bread.

“Some customers call those rolls bolillos. Others use those same rolls to make banh mis.”

 

Drake’s Barrel House, 1933 Davis St., No.  177, San Leandro, 510-568-2739, DrinkDrakes.com/barrelhouse.

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