The excitement never faded. Even after the 10th time, as I unwrapped the yellow paper and gently split the round bread in half along the seam to reveal its inner layers, I hummed a happy little tune like a kid at Christmas unwrapping a video game. You can tell by the weight and shape it’s a video game. But which one? What magical, weapon-wielding, slam-dunking, space-racing adventures are in store?
In this case, the item in hand with such a familiar weight and shape was not a game, but a torta. Specifically, a torta from La Ciudad de Mexico, a hole-in-the-wall if there ever was one, but the kind of place that packs a wallop into its few square feet.
I should admit that I’m not a torta expert. And I should also admit that I’ve never been to Mexico City. So I’ll deftly avoid discussing issues of authenticity in order to hopefully avoid flaunting my ignorance. Luckily, I have no problem talking about taste, and there’s plenty of that going on at La Ciudad. Each torta consists of a flat, round bun, lightly pressed. The bread makes these tortas special: the texture is dense enough to not fall apart in your hands while still being soft and chewy, and the bread-to-filling ratio is spot-on.
One half is spread with a layer of refried beans and onions sliced so thin they’re transparent. The other is slathered with mayonnaise and topped with queso fresco; shredded lettuce; and a few lovingly arranged strata of avocado, tomato, and jalapeño slices.
Then come the fillings. Almost 20 choices grace the menu, most of them meat-based, although vegetarians are not an afterthought, with intriguing offerings such as squash flowers and cactus.
The meat, however, is what got me. You can’t go wrong with anything pork-related — the al pastor, carnitas and Cubana (pulled pork, ham and chorizo) are all delicious standouts. It’s hard to pass up the al pastor, pork studded with hunks of pineapple, with its deep, complex flavors and sweet, spicy burn. Each bite yielded new revelations of taste. One moment I marveled at how well the caramelized, sugary pineapple melded with the natural sweetness of pork, and the next moment the back of my tongue began to slowly smolder with chili fire.
Less complex, but no less flavorful, is the carnitas torta. The generous heaping of savory pork includes lots of crispy fried bits among the mountain of tender meat, providing a nice contrast of textures and eliciting many a blissful sigh from me.
The Cubana torta, the toughest one to tackle, is made for pork lovers with its thick meaty layers, but be warned: the large size will likely fill you up for days.
The subtle warm spice from the chorizo was not quite enough for me, but La Ciudad’s chipotle sauce is there to combat any blandness. This deep crimson concoction, full of seeds and smoke, should be flung liberally over everything. Get extra.
The bright, tangy chicken tinga was the only nonpork torta that thrilled me. It fared far better than the Milanesa chicken, which lacked the crunchy breading I was hoping for.
Other menu items were tasty — particularly the simple street-style tacos, which really showcased the fabulousness of the carnitas — but for the real La Ciudad experience, go for the tortas.
La Ciudad de Mexico
Location: 200 Sixth Ave. (near California Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 422-0636, mexicocityfood-sf.com
Hours: 9:20 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, closed Saturdays
Price range: $1.25 to $8.50
Recommended dishes: Al pastor torta ($5.75-$7.95), carnitas torta ($5.75-$7.95), Cubana torta ($6.50-$8.50), chicken tinga torta ($5.75-$7.95), carnitas taco ($2.95)
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard