- Enrique Limón
I've bellied up to my fair share of gonzo food. I've faced down pizza-sized omelets, quadruple-decker deli sandwiches and legions of unholy food piles of my own making at all-you-can-eat buffets. That being said, it's been a long time since I've felt truly humbled by a dish. The tortas at Big Tortas (multiple locations, bigtortas.com) have managed to evoke a sense of meekness that I haven't experienced since I was 6 years old, right after ordering an unexpectedly monstrous plate of chow mein and bursting into tears when I realized that this thing was more likely to eat me than the other way around.
Tortas are designed to be gigantic. They're Mexican sandwich staples thought to be born of an appropriation of the French baguette. Mexican bakers developed smaller loaves called bolillo and decided they had the structural integrity to house whatever meats, cheeses, veggies and sauces that they could fit between the slices. Since then, the torta has maintained a rich legacy of regional flavors and more modern interpretations that make them yet another jewel in the crown of Latin American sandwiches.
I had been enjoying tortas from the taco stands near 9oo South and State for a while before taking my first steps into Big Tortas. I had started to see their cartoony mascot—an anthropomorphic torta with its arms outstretched as if it was ready to pull you in for a big, sloppy hug—in my periphery as I drove around town. They have four locations along the Wasatch Front, which means that they've done well enough to establish footholds in South Salt Lake, West Jordan and West Valley. Once you take a look at their vast menu of tortas, tacos and meat-centric alambres, it's not hard to see why Big Tortas is growing.
Since this wasn't my first rodeo, I figured I knew what I was getting into once I placed my order. The torta ranchera ($11.75) immediately sparked my curiosity because it had breaded steak and breaded chicken, and I was in the mood for a little turf and turf. Everything here is made to order, so it does take a bit of time for the back-of-house grillmasters to do their thing. Once your behemoth masterpiece arrives, however, you're immediately grateful for the fresh preparation. In addition to the meats that are pounded into thin cutlets before being breaded and cooked, you also get some tomato, avocado and onions, along with a slowly melting slice of Oaxaca cheese. That last bit hangs out at the top of the torta, strands of its buttery goodness drifting lazily down the sides, and the creamy avocado parties at the bottom. These two ingredients are the yin and the yang, the solar and the lunar, the force that binds this universe of a torta together. The cutlets were well-cooked, if a little bland on their own, but that queso Oaxaca and avocado mixture had me hungry to try more.
On my second visit, I decided to go all in, and going all in at Big Tortas means ordering the colossal Sur 39 ($11.75). Where many of the tortas on the menu offer a few complementary ingredients—such as the torta Hawaiana ($11.75) with its ham and pineapple—the Sur 39 is armed to the teeth. The warm blanket of cheese sits atop a carnivorous orgy of ham, chorizo, bacon, steak and a pork chop—the holy porcine trinity and then some. The torta engineers also manage to fit grilled peppers and onions along with their usual veggies inside, and you can still add jalapeños to the mix which I highly recommend.
This monster arrived at my table with an audible thud, and I pulled the two halves apart to observe the layers within. Tortas have a reputation of being messy, and I had already assembled a thick stack of napkins to prepare for my journey. To my surprise, this torta did not jettison its filling once during the meal. While that might not sound impressive, keep in mind that this marvel has a grand total of 10 layers. The fact that the Sur 39 doesn't detonate like a stick of dynamite once you take a bite not only means that all those layers are tender enough for your teeth to cut through, but they've been assembled with maximum efficiency in mind.
I could continue to gush about how the Sur 39 is essentially the Golden Gate Bridge of the sandwich medium, but all that flair is nothing if it doesn't taste good. While the ranchero filling suffered from a lack of seasoning, the Sur 39 is seasoned with bacon and chorizo, so no issues at all there. Jalapeños cut through all that delicious meat flavor with some heat, and that Oaxaca cheese is fantastic.
While I enjoyed the Sur 39, trying to eat the whole thing by myself left me awestruck. I'm struggling to remember an entrée that so beautifully combined form and function while being too much meal for me to finish off. I walked in thinking my moderate torta experience had prepared me only to find out that I was woefully outmatched—but what a delicious defeat it was.