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


Jesse said...

A++++++ as usual!!

Definitely waiting for the DVD, hoping it includes an impending General Tso's Chicken session.

Inhuman Eating Machine said...

I've been thinking of how I could do a Chinese dish somehow. General Tso/Tsao/Chow/etc. chicken might be a good one to try. It varies so much from place to place. You eat that at 10 places and get 12 completely different meals- same goes for Szechuan chicken.

Jez said...

You could do that in place of the fried chicken. I mean really, how different is fried chicken?

zacives said...

You are an amazing human being. Long Live the MACHINE!