Wednesday, December 23, 2009

IEM Session #13- Stop Bombing, El Salvador!- Pupusas

Inhuman Eating Machine rules and guidelines.

Again, it's taken forever to post another IEM session. This time, however, I have a valid reason for the delay. In late September, I went back to school to get a certification to teach ESL to adults. Due to my my hummingbird-like attention span, I was always a lousy student. After being out of school for almost 20 years, studying is even harder for me than before. Having to devote brain power to my classes made it difficult for me to concentrate on writing about my life as a disgusting binge-eater. Luckily, I'm out of school until early January, so I have a little time to post IEM #13.

Something new is coming to Inhuman Eating Machine very soon. In the next couple of weeks, I'll do the eating for session #14. As soon as that's done, I'm going to start posting several short updates per week that detail my travails as I prepare for IEM #15. You may not know it, but I train tirelessly to get ready to eat again in earnest. I binge and starve constantly. As you can see, IEM session depictions are long. They take a while to write, especially now that I'm in school. It may take some time for me to get IEM #14 posted, but I think I can at least muster a couple of paragraphs 4 times a week with something like, "I ate an entire bag of clementines today. I gained 3 lbs. and now I'm crapping Orange Juliuses..." And then eventually the actual session will post, too. The chronology might seem a little weird, but that's the way it has to be. "Real blogs" are supposed to post regularly, not once every other month, so these updates are my concession to blogosphere etiquette. The aim is to tide you over until the next session and hopefully, get more people interested along the way. In theory, by the time I reach my fighting weight, it will be time to embark on another session.

The food I eat on these sessions is cheap, but it is not free. If I was gainfully employed, it would be no big deal to pay for eight sub-$10 meals once every 2 months. However, I was laid off almost a year ago and am trying to cut corners. If I could get some patrons to help finance my art, it would be a godsend. My PayPal donation address is If you can give
anything to help keep IEM chugging along, I would be forever grateful. Any amount would be appreciated. I'll even acknowledge you here.

Donation Levels:
  • $1-$4.99 = Totally Sweet Level
  • $5-$9.99 = Completely Rad Level
  • $10-$19.99 = Man, You're Awesome Level
  • $20+ = I Just Shat My Pants Out of Sheer Gratitude Level
I don't know much about El Salvador other than this:
  • It's a small Central American country whose people are largely despised by Mexicans.
  • In the 80's, there was a civil war there between the military government and leftist rebels. The military, supported by the U.S., bombed suspected rebel strongholds, which led to "Stop Bombing El Salvador" bumper sticker being affixed to every Volvo in the Bay Area, circa 1987.
  • It's the birthplace of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), one of the largest and most bloodthirsty street gangs going these days. They are the subject of a particularly disturbing episode of Gangland on the Discovery Channel.
And El Salvador is where the pupusa comes from. The pupusa is so fundamental to the cuisine of El Salvador, they even declared November 13, "National Pupusa Day." What's a pupusa? It's like if you took the dough from a corn tortilla (masa dough) and you stuffed it with one or more of the following: meat (usually chicharrones aka pork rinds), cheese, beans, loroco, or zucchini. After the dough is stuffed, it's cooked on a griddle like a pancake. They are served with a cabbage salad known as curtido and a special hot sauce. If you're not eating these things, I don't want to know you. People have told me what they thought of the companion video that came with IEM #12. Some loved it; some thought it was "too much." Well guess what? Lily shot a video for this session, too. It's in the editing stages. I'll let you know when it's done.

Photos by Lily Chou (Some taken directly from the upcoming video)

Eating day: October 9, 2009

1. PUPUSERIA SAN ANTONIO- 30030 Mission St.- Hayward, CA- 11:15am- Mixta, Cheese-$1.95 each

Oh, the Oakland mom and pop restaurant. I try and support you. Nearly the entirety of IEM is a paean to you. Your idiosyncrasies endear you to me, but your ineptitudes are often mind-boggling. It seems that many of these establishments in town were opened by people who are in love with the idea of running a restaurant, rather than actually running one. Customer service is often aloof, if not hostile. Getting a glass of water can be next to impossible. The quality, quantity, and availability of food can be sharply inconsistent. The buildings are cold. Some are filthy. Why squander your life savings and then run your dream eatery half-assedly? Case in point, Lily and I left my apartment shortly after 10am so I could finally try the Salvadoran place on 23rd Ave. Earlier this year, it had been open for about two minutes. And then for six months, there was a sign on the window reading, "Closed for renovations." How could a brand new restaurant that barely had time to get its griddle greasy require renovations? I didn't think they'd last long in that neighborhood, but I thought they'd close due to excessive robberies or mismanagement, not because they needed new drywall. I was glad to see their grand re-opening sign and decided they'd be the first place I would stop on IEM #13. When I didn't see pupusas on the menu on their wall, I assumed the menu was for entrees only. When I asked the woman at the counter, not only did she tell me that they didn't have pupusas, she looked at me like she didn't know what I was talking about. It doesn't seem like a very good idea to omit the national food of your country from your menu when you open a Salvadoran restaurant in the USA. A Salvadoran restaurant sin pupusas might work in El Salvador, but here, it's a fool's errand.

Q. What do you call a Salvadoran restaurant in the USA that doesn't serve pupusas?

A. Closed in about a month.

After the anti-pupusa establishment, I decided to try Carmencita's on 14th. Ave. They're actually a Guatemalan-Mexican place, but they have pupusas on their menu and I've enjoyed their food in the past. We stopped by about 9:30am, but they were closed. This makes no sense, as they have a breakfast menu. There was no sign explaining the closure. Do these places want to stay in business? If so, they must have certain items (e.g. pupusas) on their menu and they must also adhere to their posted hours if they want people to drag themselves across town to visit their eatery. If someone gets burned once, they're probably not returning. Some people might suspect these places only exist as money-laundering fronts, but that can't be right. To launder money, currency must change hands.

We left Oakland, hoping for better luck in Hayward. The first place on my list in Hayward (Los Planes De Renderos) didn't open until 11am, according to their sign. We arrived at 10:50am. After getting rebuffed twice in Oakland, I wasn't going to wait around ten minutes only to have the proprietors stand me up. Famished, I decided to venture further into Hayward and return to the first location later. We drove down Mission St. When it seemed like we were almost to Fremont, we pulled over. I called Kelly and had her Google Map the address. I had driven about five miles past the destination. The place is in a strip mall set back from the road a little, so it was understandable that I had missed the turn.

I was about ready to gnaw off my own foot when we arrived. Normally, I would be happy that the pupusas here were made from scratch like they normally are. But in my comprised condition, I sort of hoped that they had pre-made specimens that they could throw in the microwave. The lady took her time patting out the masa. It seemed like hours until the food arrived. In addition to the pupusas, the woman delivered a see-through pail of curtido and a massive syrup container of the chile sauce. Normally, you get a little bowl of each of these condiments, so I wasn't sure if these were all for me, or if these were for the table. There was at least a quart of the curtido. It was extra crunchy, so it must have been prepared rather recently. It wasn't as spicy as the curtido you sometimes find, but it was a good counterpoint to the starch I was about to receive. Often, curtido is soggy when it sits its own juices too long. The cheese pupusa was loaded with what I assume is a Oaxaca/quesillo-type cheese, which is stretchy like melted mozzarella. The exteriors of both pupusas were cooked perfectly- neither excessively crunchy, greasy, nor doughy. The mixta (chicharrones, beans, cheese) pupusa was excellent. Often mixta/revuelta filling is a slurry with no discernable parts within. In San Antonio's filling, there were chunks that actually looked like meat. The filling was rich, so they must have used some seriously lard-laden refritos plus a big wad of hacked pork rinds swimming in fat. My first use of the chile sauce yielded an almost clear liquid that tasted like water with a trace of chile powder. Since the fluid in the syrup container appeared to be red, I decided to shake it up. After doing this, the sauce flowed much darker and thicker. It still wasn't very hot, but it had a pleasant tomato flavor.

I exited San Antonio ready to eat anew. I was wondering if the cabbage would provide a foil for the masa and pork fat I would eat throughout the day. Only time would tell if the curtido would work as an antidote to the heaviness or serve as an accelerant to induce even greater gastric distress.

2. PUPUSERIA Y TAQUERIA LOS COCOS- 29617 Mission St.- Hayward- 11:51am- Mixta, Bean & Cheese-$ 1.99 each

We drove back up Mission St. past the Hayward Holiday Bowl and nearly missed this place, too (once again hidden in a faceless strip shopping center.) After spying it, I still had to drive well past the joint in order to do a u-turn, due to a center median and heavy traffic on Mission. In Hayward, it apparently takes some serious commitment to eat Pupusas. At least all three places have parking lots. There is a Los Cocos on Fruitvale Ave. in Oakland. I'm not sure if the two businesses are related, but they have similar logos that both employ coconuts in lieu of the O's in their names. Los Cocos on Fruitvale is the first place I ever tried a pupusa, around 1996. For several years, it was the only game in town. The menu at Hayward Los Cocos' includes pupusas de arroz (rice pupusas), in addition to the usual choices. I had never heard of a rice pupusa. I imagined it was a standard pupusa stuffed with spanish rice. It sounded interesting. While the rice-load you get in burritos around here is an abomination, a sprinkling of rice inside a pupusa might be not be unpleasant. After playing a "Who's on First"-like game with the counter girl, I realized that the pupusa de arroz is NOT stuffed with rice. The dough is simply made of rice flour, rather than the corn-based masa dough. They are filled with the same stuff you get inside a standard pupusa. Due to the confusion during the ordering process, I wound up getting an extra pupusa gratis, which I took home to Kelly.

They brought some chips before the pupusas arrived. I knew I shouldn't be eating more starch, but it takes a mighty man to refuse free chips of any kind. The chips tasted "off." They were either stale, or they were those crappy tortilla chips sold at the Dollar Tree that taste funny even when fresh. It was a blessing in disguise. I hardly ate any of the chips, saving valuable stomach space. There was a large stainless steel container on the table with a latched lid; the kind that fancy coffee shops use to store ground beans. I opened the lid and discovered the can was filled with curtido. Maybe the big curtido container is a Hayward thing. Los Cocos didn't use a syrup container for their sauce, though, preferring a ketchup squeeze bottle. The filling of the mixta pupusa was adequate, but bland compared to the version at San Antonio. Also, the exterior was doughy. I prefer them cooked more thoroughly. The dough's consistency was like a tamale, which is not what you want with a pupusa. The pupusa de arroz filled with beans and cheese was far better. The beans were moist and lardy and there was ample stringy cheese, similar to the pupusa at San Antonio. What really set it apart was the rice flour shell. It had a texture best described as "qiu qiu" (Taiwanese for "chewy/rubbery.") Rather than crumbling apart like the their standard pupusa, this entry stuck to my teeth a little, like tapioca balls in a bubble tea. It was like eating fried mochi stuffed with beans and cheese. I don't know whether it was due to the rice flour outer shell, or just the absence of chicharrones, but the pupusa de arroz was far lighter than the standard pupusa here. Only a few places on the session had the arroz option, but I would not be surprised if I would have fared better on the session had I chosen that variety exclusively.

I finished the standard mixta pupusa after tearing through the rice pupusa. After I was done with both, I was surprised to feel a growing fullness. With the torta session, it made complete sense to feel weighed down early, as a single torta can weigh as much as 4 pupusas combined. It couldn't merely be dough weighing me down. Was there sawdust and brewer's yeast inside those pupusas? Mitch Cardwell claimed that I should be able to cruise through the pupusas like each one was a potato chip. He even went as far as asserting that 16 pupusas in a day was not a challenge at all. Dearest, Mitchell. Will you ever tire of being wrong?

3. LOS PLANES DE RENDEROS- 22841 Mission St.- Hayward- 12:48pm- Revuelta, Loroco Y Queso- $2.00 each

When we returned here, they had a decent lunchtime crowd of what I assumed to be workers from the nearby courthouse. East Bay pupuserias don't seem to draw many gringos. I surmise they are either too stupid to know what a pupusa is or they fear that every Salvadoran restaurant is in a "bad neighborhood." Los Planes' clienteles, however, were mostly non-Latino. Maybe it is only because of their location in downtown Hayward, but hats off to Los Planes for getting East Bay white folks to try the manna from El Salvador.

I'd only eaten four pupusas thus far, yet I received a slight rectal twitch shortly after sitting down here. With my microscopic timeframe for waste elimination, I figured I owed it to myself to investigate their facilities . There is a huge mural on the wall of a woman serving a platter of pupusas in a Salvadoran village. Other than that, there is not much atmosphere at Los Planes. But they have a large, clean, single-person bathroom located down a long corridor behind the dining room. All of these elements make for a wonderful bowel movement experience, so any decorating shortcomings could be forgiven. Once ensconced in this comfortable sanctum of defecation, I set out to determine if the twitch spoke the truth. Huzzah! The harbinger was as real as you or me. After a single coaxing contraction, the floodgates opened of their own accord. A half dozen oblong masses issued forth into the water. Each was larger than its predecessor, as if I had produced fecal-plated Russian nesting dolls with my anus. Not surprisingly, my fullness had subsided considerably.

This was my first experience with a loroco pupusa. Loroco is an edible flower/plant that is a common pupusa ingredient in certain regions of El Salvador. The crust of the loroco pupusa was ideal. It was greaseless. The color was a perfect golden brown. It was crispy outside, but soft inside- but not mealy/doughy like a tamale. The inside was stuffed with the usual stringy cheese and flecked with green pieces of loroco. Loroco doesn't look like a flower. It resembles chopped green onions and has a similar texture when chewed. Unlike green onions, though, loroco has no detectable taste. I am not certain why anyone would add these to a pupusa, unless they impart a nutritional benefits of which I am unaware. The loroco did not detract from the pupusa's overall grandeur, but it is hardly a necessary ingredient. The revuelta pupusa's exterior was the same as the loroco, but the inside was nothing less than a revelation. I can state unequivocally that this was the single best pupusa I have ever eaten. The filling had substantial pieces of what looked like the pulled pork you might find in a Memphis BBQ sandwich. The refritos were impossibly flavorful and they didn't go overboard with the cheese. This allowed the flavor of the chicharrones, which were seasoned with garlic, to shine through. With the intensity of the pork filling and the richness of the beans, this was a severely heavy pupusa experience, despite the lightness of its masa casing. Two revuelta pupusas here would challenge a mere mortal. Four would even be sufficient to satiate ME for a few hours.

Before you pooh-pooh the notion of coming all the way out here (13.8 miles from my door), you should understand something. For $4 and the cost of gas to Hayward, you can come to Los Planes and be fully satisfied. You will get full for the cost of one of your childish burritos.

4. SAN VICENTE- 1258 Davis St.- San Leandro, CA- 1:45pm- Bean, Mixed- $2.00 each

Following Mission/E. 14th St., it only took 15 minutes to drive from Los Planes to San Vicente, but when we arrived, I was as full as before I crapped at Los Planes. It wasn't hard to tell that San Vicente used to be a Chinese restaurant. The tables and chairs are mostly that tacky black lacquered wood stuff that they sell in those discount furniture stores on International Blvd. near Sinaloa. There were several paintings of cranes and cloud-covered mountains on the walls. All they were missing was a Confucius shrine and a Buddha behind the cash register.

The TV was playing a series of Spanish-language pop videos by a shirtless guy who looked like a cross between Fabio and Steven Seagall. I ordered a Kolashampan along with my pupusas. I generally eschew soft drinks, especially at restaurants, as it's a prime example of "how they get you." I don't see this delicious Salvadoran cream soda often, though, and I didn't want to miss out on this opportunity. Ordering a carbonated beverage during an eating session might seem unwise, but I ascribe zero blame to the Kolashampan for my forthcoming misery. The pupusas here were adequate, but unremarkable. The mixta's filling was lighter than Los Planes', but the reduced fat meant reduced flavor, too. There was less dough overall on the outside, which made the filling somewhat visible through the dough. The exterior of the bean pupusa was identical to the mixta option, but the filling was unique among all of the pupusas of the day. It was filled with black beans. You don't see frijoles negros much outside of the Carribean- and El Salvador does not have a Carribean coast. Go figure. The black beans were a nice change of pace, but better in theory than reality. The bean filling was rather bland. I appreciated that the black beans were lighter than refritos, since I was doing a session, but they should have seasoned them more to compensate for the lack of fat. This goes for the mixta pupusa, too. The curtido had quite a few shredded carrots in it and a good deal of onions, which added a little more zing then some offerings. It was served in a bowl with an Asian-looking floral pattern on the side- further proof of San Vicente's Chinese restaurant past. The sauce was quite mild, even though I had asked for the hot sauce. Eight pupusas into the session, I started to suspect that pupusa sauce isn't supposed to be very picante. The sauce adds a little flavor and helps to moisten the masa (or rice flour) crust, but it doesn't seem like they really want it to heat things up too much.

After finishing both pupusas and much of the curtido, I was feeling sluggish, distended, and gassy. I was not in great shape, but I felt I should attempt another pair of pupusas before resting. We lingered at San Vicente for a little while why I allowed my gut to reorganize itself and Lily finished the budin (bread pudding) she had ordered. I realized that the program-length video playing on the TV was a Spanish-language rip-off of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" saga. We watched in amazement as the video showed both male and female ass. The female lead showed her breasts and revealed her ass again and then we left.

5. PUPUSERIA ILOBASCO- Truck on Maritime St. across from Horizon Shipping- Oakland- 2:50pm- Revuelta, Cheese- $1.75 each

I learned about the pupusa trucks near the Port of Oakland from Mitch Cardwell shortly before he was laid off from Horizon, a shipping company at the port. There are a few of these trucks on Maritime St., so I decided to try Ilobasco, the truck closest to the entrance to Horizon. There is no designated legal parking on Maritime St., as far as I can tell. If you get a ticket while parking next to one of these trucks, don't say I didn't warn you.

There was nowhere to sit near the truck, so I decided to take the food to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a park on the bay with gorgeous views of both the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. We sat on a picnic table. I remove the foil from the paper plate. BOOOOOM! I looked up and saw two fighter jets cutting through the sky. I had forgotten that it was Fleet Week in SF. Normally, I'd be impressed with jets flying in such tight formation above the bridge, but my only thought was, "JESUS, these pupusas look greasy!" On the plus side, the curtido was crunchy and had a lot of cilantro in it. There was a puddle of sauce on the plate, but it looked like Tapatio, rather than the homemade stuff I'd received everywhere else. Perhaps it's too labor intensive to prepare the sauce on a truck. Unfortunately, they didn't give me any silverware with which to eat my pupusas or curtido, so I had to eat the whole thing with my hands.

I picked up the first pupusa and dipped it into the sauce. The first bite of the revuelta pupusa elicited an explosion of grease into my mouth akin to the spewage of a pork-flavored jelly doughnut, if such a thing existed. The flavor was more pronounced than the revuelta at San Vicente, but the grease quotient overrode any of those flavor benefits. The cheese pupusa reminded me of pizza from Rocky Rococo's, a former employer of mine. Rocky Rococo baked their pizzas with a pool of oil on the bottom of the pan, giving the crust the consistency of day old funnel cake. Every bite of the cheese pupusa sent more grease flooding into my mouth. If these were the only pupusas I had eaten during the day, I could handle them with aplomb with some level of enjoyment, even. I'm not beyond greasy foods, but after eight previous pupusas, Ilobasco's pupusas were like a finger down my throat. I teetered on the precipice of vomiting several times while I attempted to finish this pair. I was so close to retching, I had to stop eating just a few bites shy of completing the duo. To avoid calamity, I was forced to pause and continue later, even though this meant that the last few greasy bites would be cold- never a pleasant task.

I was full, to be sure, but not like during the torta session, where the volume of food was much greater. It wasn't that my stomach was filled to bursting. There was another element at work here to cause me such disquietude. There was something else taking me so close to the realm of regurgitation. It was a mystery. Shortly after the session, I would posit a hypothesis regarding this conundrum. More on this later.

6. PUPUSERIA LUPITA- 3340 Foothill Blvd.- Oakland- 7:50pm- Revuelta, Bean $2.00 each

I let Lily go about her business while I writhed in agony at home, awash in a blanket of decomposing pork mist that crept ceaselessly from my anus. Every secretion reminded me of how close I came to failure. As usual, I drifted in and out of consciousness. When I awoke for good, my hunger had not yet returned, but the feeling of impending vomit had subsided. I felt I could handle the remainder of the pupusas from Ilobasco. When I unwrapped the napkin in which I had stored the leftovers, I noticed that some of the grease had solidified on the surface. It brought me back to my childhood...

I remember staying overnight once at Pete Catland's crappy townhouse. There was a cold pan sitting on the stove there with a big hardened chunk of bacon fat sitting on it, reserved for future use. In later years, I learned to appreciate the glory of bacon fat, but back then, seeing that stuff sitting there unrefrigerated, looking like a melted shabbos candle- it grossed me out. And it made me think that gentiles were a bunch of sick motherfuckers.

Luckily, there wasn't too much of the pupusas left to eat and I polished off the remaining bites in seconds. Lily had come over to film me eating those last morsels. We watched TV for a while until some modicum of hunger returned within me. At that point, we called Mitch Cardwell to see if he wanted to come along for the remaining stops. Not only did he agree to accompany us, but he offered to drive us around in his hybrid. I felt like an aristocrat.

I had recently seen a sign touting pupusas outside a castle-like building on Fruitvale Ave., so I wanted to try that place first. When we arrived, there were lights on, but no sign of a restaurant. We went in the front door of the castle and found it deserted with no sign of a pupusa restaurant. Then a guy came downstairs. He told us there used to be a lady who sold pupusas from a cart inside the fence in front of the castle. Unfortunately, local merchants didn't like the lady hanging around and had her 86'd. All that remained in the castle was a cafe that operates only during the daylight hours and a place upstairs which sells and services remote control cars. It's a well-known fact that every man, woman, and child loves remote control dune buggies, but I think I'd rather have the pupusa lady back.

Lupita's has been our go-to place for pupusas since Kelly moved in with me in 2000. In those days, it was either Lupita's or Los Cocos for pupusas in Oakland. Since parking is easier on Foothill, Lupita's got most of our return business. Their food has never disappointed and the staff is always friendly there, but I've always wondered how they've stayed in business all these years, as we are usually the only people dining when we visit. Like Sinaloa, I'm guessing they make the bulk of their money from their truck, which is in a small parking lot on the side of the restaurant. The truck is never overly crowded, but it has a steady stream of customers. Anthony Bourdain's went to Lupita's truck when he did an Oakland side-trip on the SF episode of No Reservations. I visited the truck about a week after the show first aired. I fully expected to see a line of foodies a mile long, but only saw a few loathesome twenty-somethings there. They were jabbering that they hoped that the food would make the trip to this "sketchy area" worthwhile. Perhaps the 'hood kept away the a-hole contingent, preventing Lupita's from receiving a significant "Bourdain Bump" in business. In these troubled times, a place like this could use the extra traffic, even if it's a bunch of lamewads from North Oakland with skinny jeans, scarves, and ironic moustaches.

We were waited on by Lupita herself. When I came by the truck after the Bourdain episode, she comped me an entire pupusa, even though I was there for tacos. This time, she comped us two entire chicken tamales! With a restaurant as empty as hers, it's shocking that she's giving away these kind of samples. I hope she knows what she's doing. In my condition, I had no intention of eating a full tamale, but felt I owed it to Lupita to at least take a taste. This tamale was like none I've ever had. You know how the masa in tamales is usually kind of crumbly? The corn in Lupita's tamale was smooth and moist throughout and had significant chicken flavor. This might sound a little unappetizing, but the dough was almost gelatinous, as if the chicken chunks were floating around in masa Jell-o. Somehow, it all added up to make the most delicious tamale ever. (Note: I returned subsequently for a pork tamale. It wasn't nearly as good as the free chicken tamales she gave us during the session, so keep that in mind when ordering.)

The pupusas were both a little too doughy for my tastes. They were skimpy with the pork in the revuelta pupusa. The refritos in the bean pupusa seemed lighter than usual. They may have even been made sin manteca! This was welcome so late in the session, but it would have rubbed me the wrong way under normal eating conditions.

Here's a cynical theory. What if Lupita is cutting the fat/lard in her recipes to lure more of the strange gringos that showed up after her truck appeared on Bourdain? (Further evidence: the curtido was made with RED cabbage- the cabbage millionaires eat.) If this theory is true, I can't say that I blame Lupita, but after eating the revuelta at Los Planes de Renderos, Lupita's pupusas seemed just so-so. Without Los Planes, I'd have nothing but praise for these pupusas, but how are you supposed to go back to Steak-Ums once you've had Kobe beef? I asked Lupita if her restaurant is affiliated with the Lupita's further down Foothill near Mi Pueblo. She told me that it's owned by her daughter. Since Lupita Junior's place is a little too deep in East Oakland to attract the kind of shitheels you see in Temescal eateries, it's possible that she's felt no incentive to discard her buckets of lard just yet.

7. OTAEZ TACO ROOM- 3872 International Blvd.- Oakland- 8:49pm- 2 Revueltas- $2.00 each

8. PLATANO- 2042 University Ave.- Berkeley- 9:23pm- Revuelta, Zucchini and Cheese (rice flour)- $2.25 each

I was pretty stuffed, but thanks to Lupita Sr.'s dietetic pupusas, I had none of the regurgitory urges I experienced earlier. As mentioned before, I had a revelation shortly after the session. CHICHARRONES ARE FRIED SKIN. Say, "Duh!" if you must, but when they're ground up in a slurry and mixed with beans and cheese inside masa, they don't seem very skin-like. I've figured out in recent years that fried skin is my gustatory nemesis. I am able to eat fried chicken with the skin without issue, but only in "normal people" portions. When I eat it in the portions I'm accustomed to, it makes my stomach start to quease. And then I get a light head that borders on a Yacqui-like altered state. About a month ago, I finished off a 3/4 lb. bag of fresh chicharrones snacks from Mi Pueblo's hot food deli. They were delicious, but I wound up in the same hallucinatory condition as after I eat an 8-piece box from Popeye's. This led me to realize that the near-puke experience I endured during the pupusa session was due to the fried skin in the revuelta/mixta pupusas. You'll see my predicament for yourself soon enough. There's a scene in the upcoming video where I get up and jerk around like Carlos Castaneda on a peyote vision quest. Mitch desperately wants me to do a fried chicken session. That amount of skin would surely land me in a puke-filled rubber room.

At this point in the session, things became complicated. Unlike taco and torta places, East Bay pupuserias do not stay open late. Finding one open after 9pm is practically impossible. I had lost several hours after the West Oakland truck incident, effectively eliminating at least 5 destinations from my list. After Lupita's, I figured we should try Otaez first and then return to Carmencita's.

Otaez is really two separate Mexican restaurants divided by a walkway that houses both their bar and a check cashing station/Western Union office. One side of Otaez is a sit-down place. The other side is what I call the "taco room," specializing in tacos, tortas, and burritos with some hard to find meats, e.g. suadero. I had heard that the taco room now has pupusas- uncommon for a Mexican place. I was concerned when I didn't see pupusas listed on their wall menu. Desperate, I asked the lady behind the counter if they did indeed have pupusas. Luckily, they had them, but why weren't they listed? Is the Otaez pupusa a secret item that you have to know about in advance, like Animal Style fries at In N' Out, the shrimp papaya salad at Banh Mi Ba Le, or John Dillinger's 15-inch cock at the Smithsonian? I was happy that, for once, I was in the know. Otaez has a self-service salsa bar, where they also house their curtido. The cabbage was swimming in liqiuid all day, so it was understandable that the curtido was somewhat limp, but it was spicier than most. I ordered the pupusas to go so I could get to Carmencita's as soon as possible.

I called Carmencita's to see what time they closed and got no answer. It's possible that they had closed for the day already, but it's more likely that they never even opened, as they were closed when we stopped there at 10:30am. I really want to support that place, as it's so close to home, but they just keep fucking up.

I figured that Los Cocos on Fruitvale Ave. was probably still open, since it's in the heart of Fruitvale, but when we drove by, just a few minutes past 9pm, they were closed, too. Oakland is hurting for late night eats. Would it kill a pupuseria to stay open past 9pm? Sure, they'd get robbed every now and again, but that hasn't stopped the taquerias from operating until as late as 2am in some cases. There's a tradition of hatred towards El Salvador and Salvadorans from Mexicans. Why not win some points to counteract the ill-will by serving pupusas until at least midnight?

Since Carmencita's and Los Cocos were closed and I could not think of another Salvadoran place that might still be open in Oakland, I decided to give Platano in Berkeley a call. If they were closed, I'd have to scrap the session, as I was one pair short of the eight-establishment minimum. Amazingly, they were open until 10pm, an hour later than even the most daring pupuseria in Oakland. On the way there, I went to work on the Otaez pupusas. They weren't as greasy as the ones from the truck, but there was some significant glistening happening there. The insides didn't taste as heavy, though. It had an interesting pork flavor that led me to believe that they used something other than chicharrones. Since pupusas are an also-ran at Otaez, it's possible they substitute carnitas for chicharrones so they don't have to carry an additional meat just for their secret pupusas. Carnitas are not exactly a "light meat," but compared to fried pork rinds, they're practically health food. The pupusa crust was a little scorched, which may have caused too much fat to seep through the masa, thus rendering it greasier than it should have been. Otherwise, these were above average pupusas.

Platano is the fanciest place I stopped on the session, which is not surprising considering its location near UC Berkeley. They've got Ikea-style lighting, wooden tables with matching chairs, expensive-looking tile flooring, and a skinny blonde Caucasian waitress. There is a $7 minimum for dining in, an effective way to keep the riff-raff out. Pupusa has nine choices for pupusa filing, each available with either a masa or rice flour dough shell. Pupusas here cost $2.25 each, which is very reasonable, considering their location. I was expecting to pay much more.

Since my two-pupusa order was well below the $7 minumum, I took the Platano pupusas home along with the remainder of the Otaez entry. I was much less full than after the Lupita's pupusas. I started on the Otaez pupusas first to try and finish them before the fat solidified on the outside. At room temperature, 90 minutes after cooking, they were still quite edible and I was able to finish them with little difficulty. With some latent heat remaining, I tasted both Platano pupusas. I tried the zucchini with cheese first. The rice flour shell was as chewy as the one I had at Los Cocos in Hayward, but the similarities ended there. The cheese was not at all pupusa-like. It wasn't stringy and dense like the quesillo I'd been getting all day. It tasted like a cross between brie and melted cream cheese on a bagel with little bits of zucchini on top. Not bad, but it didn't taste "Latin." The revuelta was a disappointment. The filling was so bland it could not even compete with the flavor of the masa. It was just a bunch of anonymous goo. The curtido, though, was crunchy and tart.

I was about halfway done with the pupusas when I felt yet another rumble in my digestive corridor. I excused myself and produced a ruthless duke that bore no sign that it had come from an intestine, other than the slight crimp on the end. It was a flawless brown hose with no fibrous bits protruding. This was surprising, given the amount of cabbage I'd consumed.

The evacuation made the remaining bits of pupusa go down easier. Having said that, the pupusas I ate towards the end of the session weren't as challenging as the ones earlier in the day, anyway. I would have eventually handled them all, even if I had gone turdless late in the day. Receiving revuelta pupusas with a lower skin content on stops 6-8 really made a big difference. Yes, masa dough is heavy, but I contend that it had little to do with my difficulties. I place the blame squarely on the shoulder of Los Chicharrones. Had I been eating pupusas that contained zero pork rinds during this session, I believe that I really could have eaten them almost indefinitely. As Mitch said, it would be just like eating potato chips.

NEXT TIME: Special Ex-Wife Challenge

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

IEM Session #12- Torta Justice!- Part III of the Ethnic Sandwich Trilogy (Tortas)

Inhuman Eating Machine rules and guidelines.

I think I've fixed the formatting/font issue I seem to have had on all previous sessions. Sorry about that, but I barely know what I'm doing here, so take it easy.

Both Man v. Food and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations recently did shows in San Francisco. Of course, they both went to the Mission District for Mexican food. M v. F went to La Cumbre. This spot claims to be the birthplace of the “Mission-style burrito.” This variety has come to be what most Americans think of when they think of a burrito. Dear readers, if you’re somebody who wants to get all of his daily calories from a single meal, I can understand why you would want one of these burritos. All that rice and beans inside a massive tortilla is bound to satiate most people’s hunger for several hours. And if you’re a vegetarian, that wad of starch is a suitable stand-in for actual food. It provides a cheap, filling meal free of meat (and flavor). I understand why you would eat these things. I was a vegetarian for many years and understand making rationalizations for mediocre food. If you don’t belong to either of the above demographics, you really should look into ordering something other than a burrito when you go to a taqueria. First and foremost, eat tacos. Placing a little seasoned meat on small double-stacked corn tortillas and topping them with onions, salsa, and cilantro is pure genius. You can taste everything, as there isn’t a big load of rice and gooey crema canceling out the things that matter. Granted, sometimes you don’t want to have to buy several tacos to fill up and would prefer to order a single item to fill the bill. On these occasions, get a torta and leave the rice-filled burritos to children, derelicts, vegetarians, and other people who don’t know any better. The torta adds many of the same delicious components of the burrito, but the rice is omitted. Because of the lack of rice and since everything is on a roll, rather than wrapped in a flour tortilla the size of a tire, the flavors are able to shine through. If you MUST eat a burrito, do yourself a favor and get it without rice and without crema. A burrito with only meat, salsa, beans, and onions is a far more flavorful option. And if you really like Mexican/Spanish rice and crema, eat the stuff as a side order by itself. You’ll be stupefied by how great these foods can taste when they’re not served out of a tube like Chicano astronaut food.

When I told people I was going to do a torta IEM session they found this incomprehensible. How could someone eat 8 or more tortas in a day? It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me, especially after I successfully completed the Italian sub session rather handily. As I’ve found out in other sessions, my preconceived notions on a session’s bill of fare are often wrong. And this session proved challenging beyond my worst nightmares.

My friends Lily and Chris are rather well-known photographers in the local underground rock ’n’ roll scene. If you frequent punk/garage/etc. shows in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen them by the front of the stage with their cameras and their infernal flashbulbs going off every two seconds. Some people think their presence is a nuisance, but I’ve seen their beautiful results. Therefore, I think they provide a vital service to our community, even if they’re constantly in my way. Lily suggested that it might be fun to document an IEM session with videotape. It sounded like a great idea, in theory, to place a video on Youtube to help promote IEM. It also seemed like it might be fun to give readers a more visual record of my journey. As I write this, I’m not yet sure what the video will look like. I’ve seen the raw footage, but with my fidgety nature and my tendency to talk like I’ve got a mouthful of marbles, it’s possible the results will be less than stellar. It would be great to have some sort of ongoing video piece with all IEM sessions, but we’ll have to examine the end product of this session to see if it’s worth the effort going forward. Regardless, thanks to Lily for taping me all day and thanks to Chris for taking awesome still shots of all the stops. It was nice not having to schlep my crummy camera all day to take uninspired photos. UPDATE!!! Lily's video has posted and it's amazing.

The first scene Lily shot was of me rising from my bed to go into the bathroom to weigh myself. In my T-shirt and drawers, I weighed 183 lbs. Due to my slight frame, I should probably weigh at least 15 lbs. less, but for a semi-homebound six foot tall male, 183 lbs. isn’t too terrible. After I saw the damage I did on this session, I would like to get sub-180 before I start the next session. My bony frame shows every excess ounce of fat. When I eat non-stop all day long, I become what my friend once described as “a beanbag chair on a wire coat hanger.” Explorational binge eating requires rigorous training, friends. Before I gorge myself again, I need to be in tip-top shape.

Most photos by Canderson with some shots taken from Tiger Lily's upcoming video.

Eating Day: August 8, 2009

1. TORTAS LOS PICUDOS - 2969 24th St., San Francisco - 9:28am - $6.50 (Torta Ahogada)

After vowing that I would avoid trips to San Francisco during IEM sessions, there I was driving over the bridge to the Mission District. I could’ve easily obtained 50 tortas within a 3-mile radius of my apartment, but I felt I needed to head to SF during this session, if only to visit one of my favorite restaurants ever. Plus, I had heard that Los Picudos had tortas ahogadas on their menu and I was dying to try one of those. Since I was going to be in SF, I figured I should go down to South City, too. I wanted to try a couple of torta places there I’d heard about, as I’ve never really visited “The Industrial City” before.

It was weird being filmed as I drove. I had no idea what to say. I’m just not very spontaneously entertaining. I need to painstakingly choose every word to appear somewhat amusing. I will not be doing improv anytime soon.

Los Picudos specializes in tortas. Sure, you can get a torta at almost every taqueria in town, but you often find better results when you go to a specialist. There are tacos and other staples on the menu, but other than jugos and licuados (fruit and vegetable juice drinks), Los Picudos is a shrine to the mighty torta. I’d eaten here once before and was quite pleased, but I had a pretty standard combo torta that time. During the session, I was there to experience the torta ahogada, or “drowned torta.” If you’re familiar with a burrito mojado (wet burrito), then I can best describe the torta ahogada as the burrito mojado’s sexy cousin. For the ahogada, a torta is constructed as normal—in this case, a torta containing a meat-mix of carnitas, ham, al pastor, onions, avocados, and salsa. They butter the bolillo roll and grill it on the griddle before adding the ingredients between the two halves. Next, they grill the constructed sandwich with a weighted press. After the sandwich has been compressed and the bread is extra-toasty, they pour a spicy red sauce on top of the whole thing. The torta seemed to have fewer ingredients than some of the maxi-tortas you see. After pressing, it seemed less daunting than I had feared. It still had a substantial heft, though, so only time would tell how it would impact me.

The sauce was much spicier than what you usually see on enchiladas or burritos mojados. It was also somewhat tangy, which suggested there may be some vinegar in the sauce like in an adobo. Not only were there chili and vinegar notes at work, there was a strong oregano flavor, too, like you’d find in an Italian entrĂ©e. Oddly, it smelled a lot like a bowl of SpaghettiOs. Some sauce dripped onto the plate, but a large amount seeped into the toasted bread and created the most delicious carrier for toppings one could imagine. The sauced bread would make a great snack by itself. Adding meat and avocado yielded something so delicious that the torta ahogada has become an object of my dreams. This sandwich is available at very few torta stops and you can pretty much forget about finding one at establishments where the torta does not have a starring role. Now that I have experienced this masterpiece of sandwichery, the torta ahogada is a holy grail that I seek day and night. It’s become clear that the elusive cemita is unavailable within a 300-mile radius of Oakland, so I will now focus my energy pursuing local tortas ahogadas.

2. TORTA GORDA - 2833 24th St., San Francisco - 10:00am - $7.95 (Queso de Puerco)

After feeding the parking meter some more, we walked up 24th Street to the next stop. For what I was paying to park, I could’ve purchased half a torta. I must reiterate how opposed I am to being charged to park. It makes me feel like a chump. I feel that the in-crowd of the world is somehow exempt from paying to park. It seems that metered parking is a curse bestowed only on the wretched refuse of humanity. If I were alone or with my wife, I would’ve gladly parked in a free space a mile away and walked to 24th, rather than having to pay for a spot closer to the torta-rias. However, I had my camera crew to consider, so I was forced to part with my change like a sucker. Before you start with your “penny-pinching Jew” epithets, let me respond with three things:

1. Go to hell, Hitler.
2. I am a great tipper. I always give at least 20% at restaurants.
3. I am not against spending money, if I have it, provided I believe the cost is commensurate with the value of the product/service received. I think spending $100 for a hotel room is always a rip-off and I am of the belief that paying $3 to allow my car to do nothing is not money well-spent. I am not an invalid. I enjoy walking. So, why not saunter a little and park for free, reserving my loose change for psychotic panhandlers and Zagnuts?

I was under the impression that I had previously eaten at Torta Gorda, but I had it confused with Picudos. This was indeed my first visit. Torta Gorda is in an old building, probably from the turn of the last century, possibly pre-dating the great quake of 1906. It looks like it might’ve been an old luncheonette or saloon in the olden days. There’s a long counter with barstools and a few adjacent booths, mirrors behind the counter, and lots of old photos on the wall. The interior resembles the St. Francis Fountain, which is just up the block on the same side of the street. Perhaps the two establishments were rival bars back in the days of the Barbary Coast. With its old-timey antique-y decor, Torta Gorda seems fancier than Picudos, though the fare is quite similar. The extra swankiness is reflected in the price of the torta. A regular single-meat torta at Torta Gorda is $1.45 more than most tortas at Picudos. Luckily, the regular torta is quite substantial, so it doesn’t seem like too much of a swindle. And the experience was only enhanced by the lady at the cash register, a Mexican MILF with a white painter’s cap and a tank top that revealed a ridiculous amount of cleavage. When you see this much breast flesh in public, there is usually a brass pole in the middle of the room, but in these tough economic times, stunts like these are required to bring in the tips. Perhaps the ample cleavage is what the extra $1.45 is for, not the decor.

The menu at Torta Gorda says they serve Cocina Poblana (food from the Puebla region of Mexico). For a minute, I almost fainted, anticipating that they might have cemitas on the menu, as that sandwich is a Puebla specialty. Alas, they were cemita-less. As stated, the regular-sized torta here is big. I wished that I had ordered the “junior” torta, but that might’ve been cheating. The bread was pressed to a crispy golden brown and resembled a panini. The bread was a little dry, though. It was either a little old prior to pressing, or they pressed it a few seconds too long. Still, it was deliciously yeasty.

Head cheese gets a bad rap. The name makes it sound more intimidating than necessary. I sampled it first during the banh mi session and the head cheese on this torta wasn’t much different. Like the stuff found on a "combination" banh mi, the head cheese on a torta seems to disappear into the shadows. I tasted the cheese, the jalapeno, the refritos, the mayonnaise, and even the avocado, but the head cheese barely registered. It just added a bit of extra saltiness. I tore off a piece of the head cheese and sampled it by itself. It was like a really mild ham. The head cheese here was less rubbery than some I’ve had on banh mi, though.

When I was about three-quarters done with the head cheese torta, I began to realize something very disturbing. I was starting to get full. The first tell-tale sign was starting to appear. I felt like I had food in my sinuses. In the annals of IEM, I’d never felt this full so early in a session. I’d started pretty early, but I feared for my life if every torta was going to weigh me down like these first two did. And with Boos Voni on deck, I knew trouble waited for me in the Excelsior District.

3. TORTAS BOOS VONI - 5170 Mission St., San Francisco - 10:53am - $6.75 (Egg)

Tortas Boos Voni was the ONLY reason I came into The City. If not for them, I wouldn’t have bothered crossing the bridge at all. I’ve had so many great tortas there, I couldn’t leave them out of the session. They used to be called Tortas Bugs Bunny and had a crudely hand-painted sign with a cartoon image that resembled Bugs’ retarded half-brother. Supposedly, they were forced to drop their original name due to a trademark infringement. After that, they simply got rid of the cartoon sign and changed their name to “Boos Voni,” which is what “Bugs Bunny” sounds like in Spanish, anyway. Boos Voni specializes in D.F. (Distrito Federal) tortas, which is the style common in Mexico City. I read an article about a torta place in Mexico City that caters to the voracious lucha libre Mexican wrestlers. They make enormous sandwiches with a hodgepodge of ingredients that can weigh as much as 5 lbs. Boos Voni’s sandwiches aren’t quite that big, but they’re larger than 99% of tortas you’ll find anywhere outside of the D.F.

I usually get a Cubana at Boos Voni, which has five kinds of meat on it. If I recall correctly, it includes ham, al pastor, carne asada, lomo (loin), and salchicha (hot dog). That sandwich was out of the question today. Not only does it cost $9, it’s the size of Jim Plunkett’s head. Eating a Boos Voni Cubana during a session would’ve been unwise, even if I wasn’t already substantially full. Lesser eaters are often satiated with half a Cubana; a whole is generally enough food to keep my hunger at bay for as long as two hours. Considering the strain on my gut, I tried to select a lighter sandwich, knowing that “light” was a highly relative term at Boos Voni. I opted for an egg torta. I figured the egg option would be less challenging than any of the meat choices. Subsequently, people have informed me that an omelet on a sandwich is NOT light in any known universe.

The quality of the ingredients inside the Boos Voni torta is always top-notch, but what really separates them from the pack is their roll. It’s not your everyday bolillo. Their roll is massive and fluffy and it always tastes like it just came out of the oven, which is probably the case, since their rolls are baked for them just up the street. It’s so fluffy, it seems like it will float into the heavens like a puff of smoke, but when you lift half of the roll, it’s impossibly heavy. They have created an illusion that allows a cloud to weigh as much as a Mack truck. The roll dances in your mouth like a delicious hummingbird, but when it hits your stomach, it transforms into an anvil. The inner workings of this sandwich were a gargantuan sheet composed of no fewer than 3 eggs (probably more) folded over several times like a map—so much for eating light. Rather than the usual strips of queso fresco, the torta here had a crumbly, moist cheese that was similar to cottage cheese. It may have been Oaxaca cheese made gooey with crema and mayo. The refritos were comically rich and lard-laden. If the sandwich had no egg, a torta with only the roll, cheese, and their refried beans would’ve been more than a meal for the “norms” of the world. This sandwich was certainly not as highly-seasoned as the Torta Ahogada at Picudos, but it was perfect in its simplicity.

Finishing even one half of this torta was a test of wills. I seriously considered throwing in the towel before I even completed half of the sandwich. I somehow managed to finish the entire first half, but during the process, there were incidents where a little vomit rose into my mouth, only to retreat back into my stomach. The last few minutes, I had to let my mind go blank in order to even swallow. This was made even more difficult as Lily kept trying to coax telegenic quips out of me. My stomach was stretching to untold dimensions as the bread swelled within my digestive system. I felt some twitching in my bowels, and since Boos Voni has a clean bathroom, I decided to try my luck. The bathroom has a tub in it, so I imagine this used to be somebody’s apartment. I was so worn out, I felt like lying down in the tub and taking a nap. I did my best to produce, but could only summon a pair of mini-meteorites that seemed hard enough to cut glass. I strained in agony to attempt to produce more of these orbs, but all I got was pain in my rectum and bloody toilet paper. This release did zero to quell the discomfort.

I simply could not swallow any more food. I had to stop at once. I decided to take the remaining third of the sandwich home to work on it later. The foray into South City had to be canceled. All I wanted to do was go home and nurse my aching abdominal cavity. I can’t say Boos Voni acted as an Ali Baba in this case. I had taken a standing eight-count before I even walked in their door. But it was Boos Voni that delivered the blow that sent me to the canvas.

4. TORTA LOCA - 3419 International Blvd., Oakland - 5:30pm - $6.50 (Milanesa)

I lay at home writhing on the couch in agony with a colossal wad of bread and meat festering within. All I ate the previous evening was watermelon. Sure, I ate close to one-quarter of a large watermelon, but I figured that the vast majority of the fruit would be evacuated before I even ate torta #1. I urinated all night and still rose with a full bladder. I felt certain that my stomach was now a tabula rasa, ready to be filled with a gang of tortas. A sizable portion of the melon must have remained somewhere in the highway of my digestive system. I just can’t believe I could be incapacitated by fewer than three tortas without the assistance of some other food product. Yes, I’m fully aware that 2 2/3 tortas are a lot of food—for a mere mortal. But I am the Inhuman Eating Machine! I do not live in your world. I had consumed almost six Italian subs before I experienced discomfort close to this level. Even in the darkest hours of that session, I felt nothing as draining as what a mere two tortas had already done to me. And those subs were all comparable in size to the tortas. Why had the tortas packed such a wallop? I made frequent trips to the toilet to attempt a torta evacuation, but all I did was issue forth shrouds of sulfur while my anus was ripped to the bleeding point, causing “spotting” in my unmentionables.

Several hours passed. The leftover section of the Boos Voni torta remained sitting on the table before me. Some of the pressure had subsided, but I was not yet able to bring myself to eat again. At approximately 4:30pm, I righted myself and attempted to nibble my way through the sandwich. Though cold, it was still quite tasty and the egg never became rubbery. I wasn’t quite hungry yet, but the restorative powers of the majesty of Boos Voni allowed me to finish the remainder of the torta in just a few minutes. Once finished, I felt a modicum of appetite had returned, so I called Lily and Chris and advised them to come over so I could resume the session with their lenses documenting my misery.

I’d walked by La Torta Loca a thousand times in the past, but for some reason, I’d never stopped there. I don’t know why. The prices seem perfectly in line with other tortas in the International/Foothill corridor. It’s just a window with a counter and four attached stools on the sidewalk. Behind the order-taker is a wall displaying a variety of weapons to fend off the local evil-doers. There are both wooden and aluminum baseball bats, a club one would use to stun a big fish, a samurai sword, a machete, a homemade prison-style icepick/shiv, a dagger with a curved blade and pearl handle, a bayonet, a long stick with a sharp hook on the end, and a stun gun. There is also a pair of handcuffs displayed, presumably to restrain perpetrators who’ve been subdued with any of the armaments displayed on the board. I can only surmise that the cook is also packing heat behind the flat-top griddle. Nobody better act a fool up in this place, lest they experience “Torta Justice.”

On most weekends, there is a guy in a Rascal scooter parked on the sidewalk with a cart from which he sells Tepache, the Mexican version of pruno . Tepache is made by grinding up a very ripe pineapple (rind and all), adding cinnamon and brown sugar, and letting the mix ferment for a few days. It’s slightly alcoholic and quite tasty with only a slight funkiness to it. The guy wasn’t here during the session, which is a shame, because Tepache goes well with tortas.

I opted for a Milanesa torta. This was a strange move. I’m not quite sure what made me think a piece of breaded and fried pounded steak would be less of an eating challenge than, say, carnitas or al pastor. When I really think about it, though, the meat choice wasn’t that important here. When you add the buttered bread and cheese and sauce into the mix, the meat of the sandwich was immaterial. I could’ve omitted the meat and the sandwich would’ve still been a potential struggle. The bread was well-toasted and pressed. It seemed that condensing the sandwich might allow me to make quick work of the torta. The sandwich was stellar. The Milanesa was well-seasoned and tasted like an un-sauced version of veal parmigiana. The toasty bread added a great crunchy counterpoint to the gooey avocado, mayo, and crema and the chewy meat. The first few bites really served to restore my hunger. I was enjoying my meal as the Jesus freaks in the plaza (35th Ave. @ International) preached the gospel en espanol and blew their shofars. Sadly, as I reached completion of the sandwich, the pressure came back and I was as full as ever. It was almost 6pm. There are many trucks open late, so I had several hours left to procure tortas, but I was only halfway to the minimum. How could I reach my goal when I felt so full so early? There weren’t enough hours to allow me to eat until bursting and then rest for hours prior to resuming the fight. Failure was starting to seem very possible, if not probable.

5. EL OJO DE AGUA - 3132 E. 12th Street, Oakland - 6:01pm - $6.00 (Tapatia)

El Ojo de Agua has been my regular torta stop for years. Their selection of specialty tortas is the best I know of in the East Bay. Their combinations are truly inspired. I usually get the Beso de Novia. If memory serves me, that sandwich is Milanesa, ham, and al pastor, plus the usual dairy and plant-based accoutrements. Their truck is parked in front of a building that seems to be a former auto repair garage now painted with a mural of an oasis and the Ojo de Agua logo. They appear to have possession of the building and I think they may use it as a warehouse for supplies, but all food service takes place out of the truck. They usually have a pretty good crowd, but there’s never too long of a wait. The truck has the usual tacos, quesadillas, etc. They also have a burrito the size of a femur, but the tortas are the only reason to come here. They’re massive and all of the toppings pack an explosive flavor punch. Like Banh Mi Ba Le, you can add an egg to any sandwich to take it over the top. These tortas are usually enough food to tide me over for some time, so tackling one after enduring Boos Voni was quite an endeavor. But I could not leave THE Oakland torta specialist out of the session. They are to Oakland what Boos Voni is to San Francisco—the standard by which all other local tortas must be measured. I decided against the Beso de Novia. I had determined I’d already eaten my USRDA of Milanesa. I was hoping for something lighter and less overwhelming, so I opted instead for the Tapatia, which features ham, al pastor, and pineapple, plus the other usual stuff.

I was full to capacity already, but when I received the torta, there was now no doubt that I’d be unable to eat this sandwich right away—it could double for a dumbbell. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure the Tapatia was the heaviest torta of the day by 25%. My illusions of the Tapatia being an “easy torta” were shattered like the unfulfilled dreams of my youth. I was forced to take the torta home and hope that some semblance of appetite returned soon.

The camera crew, Kelly, and I sat around at my apartment watching Man v. Food, the show that should’ve been mine. Host Adam Richman was eating a burger topped with ghost chiles, the hottest pepper in the world. His ghost chile gas phantoms must have felt like someone was smelting pig iron in his rectum. My bowels were also unstable. I dropped a depth charge into the cushions of our second-hand couch that rumbled like there had been a 30-car pile-up on the I-580 freeway behind our building. The din forced Kelly to retreat to the other end of the sofa. Throughout the day, I’d been sending forth a “sampler platter” of intestinal mist. Some of the gas cookies were bland, like head cheese; others were spicy, like an al pastor-stuffed habanero.

I weighed the Tapatia. I couldn’t have been any more wrong about this being the “light torta.” It weighed in at 1 lb. 6oz. I had no hunger and I was faced with this behemoth? Why me, lord? Over the next two hours or so, I picked at the sandwich, watched TV, slept with my legs spread to allow maximum vapor dissipation, and drank iced coffee in a vain attempt at coaxing a dump. At around 9:15pm, I finally finished the Tapatia. I was so full, I was almost hallucinating, but I had to eat three more sandwiches to fulfill the session. I decided I needed to go buy the final tortas now so Chris and Lily could go home. Succeed or fail, I’d film my final struggle myself “confessional style,” like a dying man who makes a video to provide a record of himself to his young children.

6. TAQUERIA MI RANCHO - International Blvd @ 1st Ave., Oakland - 9:37pm - $5.00 (Carne Asada)

7. TAQUERIA SINALOA - 2138 International Blvd., Oakland - 9:58pm - $4.00 (Suadero)

8. LOS PAISANOS TAQUERIA - 2293 International Blvd., Oakland - 10:14pm- $4.50 (Ham)

I really wanted to crawl into bed and fart myself to sleep, yet I could not let the torta session be the first one that I failed. There are so many foods that seem so much more impossible. If I raised the white flag for tortas, how could I possibly endure something more menacing like fried chicken? (Don’t hold your breath for that session.) We went out into the night to obtain the final tortas.

Mi Rancho is a workhorse of a taco truck. It’s never blown my mind and it’s never let me down. It’s far from the action on International. This makes it a good late-night option when you feel like a quick bite, but aren’t up for the lines and the possibility of drama that sometimes accompanies the trucks on the main drag of Taco Truck Land. I’ve had tacos, quesadillas, and burritos here before, but this was my first torta experience at Mi Rancho. There was a sole vagrant outside the truck, unlike at Sinaloa, where you often have an entire squadron of derelicts who occasionally get a little aggressive. The guy at Mi Rancho was as pleasant as a bum can be. He didn’t even make eye contact with the patrons. He simply sang the refrain, “I just need one-more-dollar. So I could-buy-some-tacos. La la la.” He was so uplifting, I gave him a buck. It was easily my second favorite encounter with a panhandler. (Best panhandler experience was a guy at the top of the Civic Center BART escalator. There was a ponytail dude in front of me on the escalator wearing a “utility kilt” and work boots. The bum found this douche so ridiculous looking, he pointed at the guy and doubled over in laughter. He was laughing so hard, he forgot to spare-change the guy, who was clearly embarassed. I gave the derelict five bucks for making my day.) There was a guy in a Starbucks apron ordering at the truck. When he ordered his burrito, he asked repeatedly, “There’s white cheese on there, right? Right? You sure?” He continued, “Man, if there’s no white cheese on there, she’s gonna kill me, for real.”

Sinaloa was the counterpoint to Mi Rancho. The upper truck at Sinaloa had quite a line outside their window and several coarse vagabonds utilizing the usual high-pressure tactics one expects to see in this locale. My occasional co-eater, Mitch, told me of a near-violent encounter he had here recently. Apparently, a gigantic, angry deadbeat was employing strong-arm tactics in his quest for money and tacos. He was coming right out and demanding, “Give me some money! Give me a taco!” When people didn’t comply, he became threatening. Usually the late-night “talent” at Sinaloa is annoying, yet harmless. It would surely ruin anyone’s taco experience to encounter an intimidating hulk like that, but the corner of 22nd Ave. and International will have to turn Sarajevo-like to prevent me from frequenting Sinaloa. As mentioned in the IEM taco session, Sinaloa’s suadero tacos are about the greatest meat on the planet. And their carnitas and al pastor are top shelf, too. It would be worth dodging gunfire to get to any of those items or their selection of seafood tacos and ceviche tostadas. A few pushy winos/crackheads are not going to keep me from the objects of my gustatory lust.

Los Paisanos seems a suitable alternative to Sinaloa on occasions where Sinaloa is too crowded, it’s too cold to eat outside, or there are threatening miscreants hanging out in their lot. It’s only one block down International from Sinaloa, on the other side of the street. It recently reopened with new management after being renovated. The previous establishment was dark and seemed to be frequented only by grizzled, mean-looking, Mexican men (e.g., Danny Trejo.) It used to look like a place where El Mariachi would have to resort to gunplay to escape the premises alive. The new Los Paisanos is bright and cheery and seems to attract families. The counter lady was friendly and seemed to appreciate that Lily was shooting a “TV show.” There was a zaftig teenage girl at Los Paisanos who looked like the Mexican daughter that Tina Lucchesi didn’t know she had. The girl was about 5 feet tall, had big black hair with pigtails, a black-and-white-striped T shirt, a short skirt with tights, and Chuck Taylors. Oh yeah, if you don’t know who the legendary Tina Lucchesi is, consult your local library and stop listening to whatever crappy music it is you currently listen to.

I brought all three tortas back to the apartment. After spending several minutes determining which torta was which, I decided to weigh these sandwiches before sampling them to see what I had in store for the rest of the evening. (Note to self: Label to-go items before leaving the establishment.)

The Mi Rancho torta had seemed small-ish, but weighed in at 13.2 ounces. It was very heavy on lettuce, crema, and mayo, with no trace of cheese. Luckily, the carne asada was smoky, beefy and highly seasoned to cut through that nonsense. And there was an incredible amount of meat for the sandwich’s size. When I was a kid, I once spent my entire allowance on a package of Tender Vittles cat food because the picture on the box made the morsels look so tempting. I ate one nugget, spit it out, and threw away the rest of the box. Despite this incident, I still occasionally wonder if maybe I just had a bad batch or bought the wrong flavor of Tender Vittles. In my head, I still envision that Tender Vittles tastes like the carne asada on this torta. If you ever see me buying Tender Vittles, please remind me that they probably do NOT taste like carne asada- EVER. Overall, the Mi Rancho torta was good, but nothing groundbreaking. This place has exceptional al pastor tacos, so I’ll probably stick with those when I don’t feel like venturing further down the Boulevard at 2am.

Sinaloa’s 12-ounce torta was the smallest of the session, which is understandable, as it was also the cheapest. It was as good as one would expect from Oakland’s king of tacos. The roll was heavily buttered, as if they had intended to make garlic bread out of a bolillo. After sitting on the flat-top until well-toasted, the roll became a rich platform for the suadero, an uncommon carnitas-esque beef option made from rib meat. Combining the toasted, buttered bread and suadero would’ve been a sufficient sandwich on its own. Sinaloa went a little crema-happy, and they used a heavy hand with the lettuce, but those superfluous toppings were no match for the suadero and the ridiculously buttery roll.

Los Paisanos’ offering weighed in at 15.4 ounces. The ham was in a thick, steak-like slice. It seemed to be of a slightly higher quality than the usual FUD brand ham you seen in most taqueria applications. Strangely, it smelled exactly like a Big Mac, probably from the massive amounts of lettuce on the sandwich. This was the only sandwich of the session to include guacamole, rather than whole avocado. The ham was a little bland, which is to be expected, as ham is not really a “power meat” when it comes to torta toppings. The whole megilla was a little too salty. I might order a ham torta again if I had the stomach flu or heartburn, but it’s not likely. Like head cheese, ham really shouldn’t be the star of The Torta Show. It just disappears into the scenery. My biggest complaint with this sandwich was that they went berserk with the crema. It left a film in my mouth that prevented the already-subtle ham and even the guacamole from making their presence fully known on my palate. I hate to make the torta sound worse than it was. It was completely edible and on a less full stomach, I might’ve judged it less harshly. I look forward to ordering a torta from here in the near future with a less wussy meat.

I was able to take a few bites of each sandwich, but that was it. My guts simply had nowhere to put any more food. I was going to have to wait, all night if necessary, for some semblance of hunger to return. It was already almost 11pm. I had a long night ahead of me. Lily and Chris left the camera equipment with me to film the session’s climax and denouement myself.

At a quarter to 2am, I finished the Los Paisanos torta and started in on the Mi Rancho exhibit. I was still quite full, but the constant barrage exiting my anus allowed enough space to enable me to eat a few bites without too much discomfort. I spent the rest of the wee hours surfing the internet and watching terrible movies on the Sundance channel. As usual, this channel is better in theory than in reality. I watched a terrible movie called I Am a Sex Addict. It’s the semi-true story of the director/star’s issues with sex addiction. The guy has ZERO charisma. No wonder he had to go to prostitutes. In the film, his girlfriend is played by real-life French porn star Rebecca Lord. She did a pretty good job and made the auteur look even crummier. He was also in that Richard Linklater turd, Waking Life, so this guy is apparently indie film poison. Avoid his oeuvre at all costs. I also watched Eagle vs. Shark from New Zealand, which starred the guy with glasses from Flight of the Conchords. It was cute and not entirely without merit, but it had way too much of that forced quirkiness that makes me avoid most “independent cinema” like a rash. At the midway point of the New Zealand movie, I felt twitchings in my colon. These sensations coupled with a dense, increasingly noxious invisible blanket of colonic miasma were a harbinger of glad tidings. It was time to let nature take its course.

With the camera pointed directly at my face, I labored to produce three or four sizable rounds of amorphous tawny guano. The smell in our small lavatory distilled all of the flatulence I had emitted thus far into one convenient bouquet and then multiplied the whole shebang by one thousand. I thought I might be smothered before I finished my business. Despite the volume of waste I’d evacuated, I still felt as if I had swallowed a bag of wet sand. For the next couple of hours or so, I worked on the remaining sandwiches by taking tiny bites whenever I was able. At 5:05am, the Mi Rancho torta was finished. It had sat at room temperature for six hours, yet the asada was still tasty and likely preferable to even the freshest packet of Tender Vittles. At 6:25am, I polished off the Sinaloa torta just as Kelly was waking up for the day. The suadero was cold and the crema was now congealed like Elmer’s glue in a kindergarten sand painting, but this sandwich was still better than 99% of all sandwiches you or I will ever eat on this planet.

I felt terrible. Not only was my stomach bruised from within, it seemed as if I had somehow aspirated crema. My nose was clogged with boogers that had the consistency of Silly Putty. It took me almost 24 hours, but I was able to slay this foe with sheer determination. In many ways, this was the hardest session yet. I felt much more poisoned after the fish ’n’ chips session, but I didn’t feel as full as I did after eating all of those tortas. I needed to sleep.

I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, floss, and wash off any stray lard from my face. Before retiring to my chambers, I stepped onto the scale. Wearing the same clothes as during the morning weigh-in, the scale registered 191.4 lbs. I had gained more than eight pounds in one day of eating, even after taking one and a half dumps. I looked down at my belly. I was carrying very low. I think that means that I’m having a girl.

THE BEST: Los Picudos

NEXT TIME: Pupusas