There was once a torta that carried a crisp, juicy, pounded-breaded-then-fried chicken fillet. It also held avocado with a heaven-sent proportion of fresh jalepeños and creamy mayonnaise on top and the classic torta schmear of refried beans on the bottom, all wedged between a toasty-on-the-outside-yet-fluffy-on-the-inside bolillo roll.
It was the best torta ever created. I was enchanted. Love at first bite.
Only then I was crushed – it disappeared as the taqueria on Natividad Road in Salinas changed ownership.
Since that tragic loss in 2008 I have searched across the western United States and throughout Mexico, but have yet to find a torta that filled me with as much joy, emotionally and epicuriously.
In the process, I’ve wondered why tortas de milanesa de pollo aren’t on more menus.
On the Monterey Peninsula, I found only one restaurant, La Tortuga Torteria on Fremont Boulevard in Seaside, lists the sandwich on its menu. (Email email@example.com if you have a spot to recommend.)
La Tortuga does a solid job with it too, complete with all the fixings you’d expect, but something is missing. Maybe the je ne sais quoi is squished out of it with the agressive panini-like pressing on the grill, or it suffocates in the cellophane wrap that comes standard on their tortas.
Mundos Cafe’s locations have a crispy chicken milanese sandwich. It’s not a torta, so it doesn’t count, but it’s notable in that it’s the name is the Italian version of the Spanish.
Milanesa isn’t a traditional part of Mexican cuisine. The thinly sliced fried meat was first brought to the Americas by Italian immigrants to Argentina and Uruguay, then spread north.
The culinary history goes further. The Milanese – those hailing from the Italian city of Milan – were left with schnitzel after the Austrian Empire withdrew from Italy after more than half a century of occupation in the 1800s. Italians adapted the technique and made it their own.
Back in the 21st century, I made my way to Salinas, hoping the population of taquerias would make finding my lost love of tortas that much easier.
First stop was El Pollo Dorado. The restaurant’s name means golden chicken and their menu clearly says torta de milanesa, so it seemed like a good place to start, but to my dismay they served only milanesa de res (beef).
Milanesa de res is the more popular sibling of milanesa de pollo – think Mexican chicken-fried steak without the country gravy.
It’s delicious, and a staple in many Italian and Argentinian restaurants I respect, but it’s better suited for the blade of a knife than for incisors, so I prefer it on a plate rather than in a roll.
Next up: La Casa del Sazón. “Con todo” (“with everything”) can mean different things at different places and when I was served a torta con todo, I realized everything included unmelted shredded cheese but didn’t include refried bean spread. It was serviceable, cold cheese and all, but the bun was spongy and the chicken landed on the dry side.
Next stop on my search was La Plaza Bakery in the Laurel West Shopping Center. Upon receiving my order and unwrapping it from the parchment paper, I discovered what was the best-looking torta I’ve seen. A crispy and juicy breaded fillet, avocado, tomato, mayonnaise, pickled jalepeños and cabbage were arranged artfully on a fresh bolillo roll baked on-site. There was also a surprise I didn’t expect – a slice of queso fresco.
It was delicious, yet different, than the torta I fell in love with years ago, but it’s not good to let thoughts of an ex get in the way of enjoying a treasure in the present.
While I was bursting at the seams with torta, there was still one more spot I had to try before I could end my search.
Taqueria Cortés, formerly La Altena Taqueria, is cozy and unassuming in a small strip mall at the corner of Natividad Road and East Laurel Drive.
When the torta arrived I had to force the first bite, having eaten too much already. I was awfully glad I did.
While the torta at La Plaza might have been more beautiful, this was more approachable – nothing fancy, but an expertly toasted roll and a thick breading on the fried chicken fillet. I couldn’t resist going in for a few more bites before washing it down with a Negra Modelo.
I was then confronted with uncertainty. I knew I had to get over the torta of my memories, and now I was faced with two equally delicious, yet distinctly different tortas de milanesa de pollo. I couldn’t pick a winner.
Then I realized I don’t have to choose: My two new loves can serve different roles.
When my family comes to town and I want to introduce them to a upstanding torta, I’ll bring them to La Plaza. And if I am looking for something to eat to soak up the beer with friends, Taqueria Cortés is where I’ll be.
LA PLAZA BAKERY 1036 North Davis Road, Salinas. 5am-8:30pm daily. 422-0748, www.laplazabakery.com.
TAQUERIA CORTÉS 542 East Laurel Drive, Salinas. 8am-9pm daily. 757-5508.