You’re on a farewell tour of your beloved neighborhood, a move across town just days away, when you walk into your long-cherished local taquería. The tacos here are widely admired, the tamales a thing of beauty, but the tortas — Oh, the tortas! — are all that’s on your mind today.
Like the Vietnamese bánh mì, the Italian panino and some other non-indigenous sandwich types, “torta” describes only the basic foundation upon which any number of delectables varieties can be built. Standard garnishes for this traditional Mexican sandwich include avocado, onion, lettuce, tomato and hot peppers, situated on a oblong bolillo roll, but there’s plenty of room for creativity. (See the torta ahogada at El Chucho.) However, very unlike the bánh mì, tortas are defined in your mind by their meat content. The notion of a meatless version seems almost sacrilege. Your favorite taquería offers torta varieties including barbacoa, carnitas, chorizo and chicken, but beef tongue, ham, tripe and all other manner of goodies have been known to feature.
So you’re visiting your favorite taquería for the last time before you split for greener pastures, the aroma of spicy roasted pork and smoky grilled beef hanging in the air, and you struggle not to choke on your words as you place your order: “I’ll have a veggie torta, please.” Alas, in late August you made a foolhardy promise to spend September eating only vegetarian-friendly sandwiches. You decided to call this stunt “Meatless September.” “This will be a great way to celebrate the merits of meatlessness,” you convinced yourself. However well-intentioned your plan might have been, it begins to feel at this moment like a giant mistake.
You get your sandwich and peel back the foil wrapper. At first glance it looks much like the meatier versions you fell in love with, but you know there’s a void somewhere below the surface. Your first bites should be substantial and exciting. They’re anything but. The sandwich, already lacking heft, is also fatally thin on flavor. The too brief, too rare occasions when bites of refried beans, avocado and jalapeño align bring a brief flicker of hope that a fulfilling sandwich experience can be salvaged, but these high points are fleeting. It’s not an unpleasant meal, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact something’s missing. You finish, lamenting what might have, what should have been.
You worry you’ve taken your favorite taquería for granted all along. You’ll be back someday or you won’t, but it’s going to take a bit more doing to get here next time. You did not end things on a high note. What’s worse, the veggie torta pretty much flies in the face of everything Meatless September was meant to stand for. Given the opportunity to have much the same sandwich stuffed instead with succulent, tender barbacoa, no omnivore will ever be satisfied with this, let alone order it. You can’t blame them.