Jan. 16 2012 05:55 PM

The unsung hero of Mexican street food gets its own Gaslamp lounge

Two of Bolillo Tortas' tortas
Photo by Amy T. Granite

If I were driving around in search of Mexican food, chances are slim that I'd wind up in the Gaslamp Quarter—even if my GPS directed otherwise. Traffic and parking aside, we've all fallen victim to tourist-trap fare that runs as rampant as trashed, barefoot princesses on a Friday night in the heart of Downtown. Ever said "never again"? It's time to reconsider.

With my shoes on, I stumbled upon Bolillo Tortas late one weekend night. It's open 'til 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, closing for only five hours before breakfast.

What I discovered was tasty and affordable food prepared fast amid a loungey atmosphere. And if this wasn't surprising enough, a neighboring parking lot free to patrons for 30 minutes nearly knocked me over. 

Bolillo opened in November, and I've been four times now—twice for dine-in, seated at the bar overlooking the grill, where, if you can imagine, the lovechildren of burritos and sub sandwiches are born right before drooling patron's eyes. Alongside sizzling torta components is a row of tantalizing, cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeños that come with each sandwich (all less than $10), plus a choice of a side salad, ear of corn or mixed vegetables.

Tortas are arguably the unsung hero of Mexican street food, competing with tacos in a popularity contest they've seemingly lost in the states. The extensive menu of options at Bolillo pays homage to the fast-food staple, named after the Guadalajara-baked bread that's flown in daily and sandwiches most of the tortas. The menu is still subject to change as the new shop figures out patrons' tastes, but lucky for me, and all of you, my top two picks are guaranteed to stay put.

The Torta Cubano ($9.75), though it's large and messy, is a diverse taste of Cuba and Mexico in between a bun. Puffy bolillo is hollowed out and lightly toasted, then slathered with refried beans, mayonnaise and mustard before it meets a trio of pork—carnitas, ham and loin—and is topped with a spongy fried egg and cheese. My tastes say leave this sandwich alone from here—but true to the nature of this submarine hybrid, it comes with a mix of typical cold-sandwich veggies, including deliciously silky avocado slices. I love the different textures at play here, but it's hard to get your mouth around it without spilling some of its contents.

The carne asada torta ($9.50) is the easiest to pick up and eat, and also smaller in size. Steak is marinated, grilled over flames, then sauced with the marinade once again before meeting locally baked telera bread that's softer and reminiscent of a hamburger bun, especially with its beefy filling.

Mexican-style corn on the cob, or elote, is up there with some of the best-tasting food I've ever had ($1.50 a la carte). It's boiled in its husk, slathered in mayo, rolled in sharp and zesty cotija cheese and then gets a sprinkling of tajin—a spice blend of chile, lime and salt—before it's stabbed with a stick to grip, white-knuckled in shock and slight terror that corn could taste so good.

The house Sopa de Frijol is not to be missed ($3 cup, $5 bowl). Think of the best refried pinto beans you've ever had, puréed with cream, then topped with tortilla strips and chunks of panella cheese—which has a similar texture to soft tofu. Rich and warming, this soup and corn on the stick is the best bang-for-your buck meal I've found Downtown, period. 

There's no minimum purchase for delivery orders to Downtown and Little Italy (11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily). Look for a sidewalk grill in coming months. 

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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