Everytime I read a posting that raves about how good (for example) an In-and-Out double-double is I smile, shake my head, and conclude that here is another 'hound who has never had a good torta. For pure sinful, flavorful deliciousness, there are few other fast foods that can come close to a good torta, and I'm surprised that they are not much more common.
I discovered them seven or eight years ago when I moved from Monterey CA to its poorer neighbor, Seaside, which is where Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and few poor Anglos like me lived. It was sortof the ghetto for the Monterey peninsula. Anyway, I was living two blocks from Garcia's Tacqueria, which was in the back of the Latino Market. Their menu was a listing of meats, including tripas, buches, cabeza, lengua, as well as the more common items like al pastor and carne asada. Each of these meats could be ordered as tacos (which were just a couple of soft corn tortillas, the meat and sauce), burritos (which were highly spiced with a powerful salsa), or tortas. I quickly grew to love the tortas and often would make a salad at home and then go buy a couple tortas for dinner.
Garcia's tortas were a classic example of the traditional Mexican sandwich. On the split, grilled oval roll you got the meat of your choice (my favorite was al pastor), lettuce (or was it cabbage?), sliced pickled jalapenos, sliced avocado, a slice of tomato, and mayonaise. Other tortas that I've had will include a spicey sauce--usually different from the house salsa-- or sometimes refritos. Occasionally, the pickled jalapeno will be served on the side with other spicey pickles. Some restaurants will substitute lettuce for cabbage and/or omit the avocado or the tomato. Sometimes the roll is about the size of a standard burger bun (but always oval), sometimes it's larger.
Now I'm living down on the border (Yuma AZ) in a town which is at least 50% hispanic. And one thing that has surprised me is that the little fast food stands and holes-in-the-wall in town that cater to the local Mexicans often feature tortas, not tacos or burritos, as their main attraction: "Bettigo's Tortas" the sign will proclaim in large letters, with small print adding "burritos" or "tacos." In addition to the standard meat choices, jambon (ham) or pollo are also popular.
Yet as you move north in the U.S., tacos and burritos become the main types of Mexican fast food and tortas somehow get lost. Now I'm not confusing them with health food, but their wonderful rich combinations of flavors and textures put most hamburgers to shame, and it is puzzling to me that they are not more common.