Barriga Llena's pierna torta
Like banh mi, tortas hold a special place in my heart because they point a delicious and direct middle finger back to Colonialism. While the Mexican people did their best to fight off French occupying forces in the 1860s (see Cinco de Mayo, which, counter to popular Corona-soaked belief is not Mexican Independence day), they offered less resistance to French bread. Locals adopted and adapted baguettes into softer rolls called bolillo or telera, then filled them with traditional ingredients like spice-rubbed meats, chiles, beans, cheese, and avocado.
Barriga Llena's pierna torta
Today tortas, often overstuffed with all manner of meats and vegetables, are Mexico's most popular fast food and a staple of Mexican restaurants and taco trucks in the U.S. This week Versus visits Greenwood's Barriga Llena and Capitol Hill's Ranch Bravo to see who's serving the superior pork torta.
If you go to Barriga Llena (7815 Aurora Ave N, 782-1220), a shop which specializes solely in tortas, it's best to get there hungry. Very hungry. Barriga Llena, which translates to "full belly" in English, is more than a business name: it's a promise. A simple pierna torta has at its base a thick, thick slice of a roasted pork leg steak, along with hefty layers of gooey Oaxacan cheese, tomatoes, iceburg lettuce, onions, avocados, and a healthy slathering of mayonnaise. The sandwich melts and come together under the weight of a hot sandwich press which leaves some toasty grill marks on the outside. It arrives on your table with a slight thud, fragrant with cinnamon and cumin that's been rubbed on the roasted pork. It's a beauty for sure, but its one major flaw is its fixings. The shredded iceburg lettuce and out-of-season mealy, pink tomatoes are downright sad and, after being smushed down in the sandwich press, they disintegrate into an off-tasting, wet, mushy layer. It's not all bad news, though, as this necessitates the addition more house hot sauce--a deep red puree of smoky chipotles in a bright, tangy adobo sauce--and a few more extra pickled jalapenos. If you are able to make it through this entire hot, hulking mess of a sandwich, I salute you.
Rancho Bravo's (1001 E Pine St, 322-9399) carnitas torta can certainly hold its own agains Barriga Llena in the looks department: a long, beautifully toasted rectangular bun that looks suspiciously like a hoagie roll holds within it a tangled mess of shredded, roasted pork studded with just the right amounts of juicy fat and caramelized bits, diced tomatoes, pickled jalapenos, caramelized onions, and ribbons of greenleaf lettuce. The bread has real starpower here--slathered with what is no doubt a nearly illegal amount of butter, then laid flat on the griddle till it turns brown, crackly, oily, and sweet--as do the caramelized onions, which lend an unexpected deep, rich flavor to an already solid, well-balanced sandwich. You can (and should) add any of Ranch Bravo's five different hot sauces, each one with a completely distinct flavor and burn. (The bright red, garlicky vinegary one labeled "HOT" goes especially well here.)
Rancho Bravo's carnitas torta
Verdict:The sheer audacity of Barriga Llena's pierna torta, along with its nicely spiced roasted pork, are worthy of praise. Although Rancho Bravo uses less ingredients, in the end their use of better quality ones makes for a much better torta with clearer flavors. Rancho Bravo for the win.