Aug 22, 2010

The Westport Torta Throwdown

I may never be hungry again.

Today was part deux of the Westport Torta Throwdown, between Cancun Fiesta Fresh and El Rancho, a stone's throw over the Beaumont Club and Gold's Gym in the Westport Landing strip, and let me tell you, hogging out on these filling subs is a task best left to the gastronomically well-endowed.

Tortas have become one of my ultimate cravings. Simply put, they're Mexican sandwiches, their most Mexican aspect being their authentically flavored and prepared meats. At CFF, one simply specifies which meat from the street tacos menu they'd like placed on their 'baguette' (term used loosely), meaning either asada (marinated chopped beef), adovada (barbecue beef), carnitas (shredded pork), chicken, ground beef, shredded beef, lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (beef cheek). I could go on and on about the preparation of each, but suffice it to say they're cooked using techniques that, like traditional barbecue, maximize the flavor and enjoyment that can be rendered from less expensive cuts of meat.

My CFF torta was asada. It was my first torta there and, as hoped, it was an expected extension of the flavor I like so much in their street tacos. Simply seasoned beef was piled on an oblong single-sized bun with tomato, lettuce, onion, jalapeno and guacamole. While the bread was tasty, it was a bit stale. I doubt this is a persistent problem but something to keep an eye on. Given my addiction to spicy food, I could've used a few more jalapenos, too, but for an otherwise delicious sandwich, that's a small gripe. The tomato was plenty fresh and added a nice coolness to the sandwich, along with the crunchy shredded lettuce. Grab some of CFF's delicious salsa on the way out the door and feel free to pour it on, as well, but it's not needed. I love the guacamole spread, which adds a great moistness and rich quality to every bite.

El Rancho began in Columbia, MO, as that quintessential type of Mexican pig out place for the local college students. In particular, it serves after hours recovery kickoff food in a jovial, student (and student wallet) friendly atmosphere. In Westport it serves a lot of the same purpose, but with a slightly different demographic and vibe, though one can feel the original's persona quite easily walking in the front door. It' a fun place to be.

The meat choices at El Rancho are similar, with some more breakfasty options, as well, including: eggs, ham, chorizo, milanesa (think Mexican chicken fried steak), steak, pastor (marinated pork) and chicken. My first torta experience in life was a late night chorizo torta from El Rancho, whose salty sandwichy goodness prompted this worthless post back in August of last year. I loved it. On this recent trip, I went with steak for the sake of an even comparison with CFF.

On the bread front, El Rancho was the clear winner. I believe I saw them swath some butter on its open faces and then, for sure, it got some time on the flat top grill, adding flavor and texture the CFF version lacked but desperately needed.

El Rancho's, too, came with avocado (whole slices, not guacamole), but with mayo, as well--enough mayo, it would seem, to kill any glutton who would eat it all. I realize that complaining about the amount of mayo on a fast food Mexican sandwich is like complaining that your fries at McDonald's are too... fried... But from a flavor and textural perspective, all that mayo really hurt the sandwich. The avocado (and salsa I dumped on) did plenty to moisten the bread. That mayo just turned the whole thing a gooey mess. So in the condiment arena, the prize goes to Cancun Fiesta Fresh.

There was no discernible winner in the meat category. Both were fine, but the chorizo version I had previously bested either of these two. The chopped up beef in both was a little dry. Not bad, but just not as craveable as other choices on both restaurants' menus.

El Rancho's torta also featured tasty, juicy tomato and delicious, pickled jalapenos. These jalapenos, more plentiful than on my torta from CFF, were plump and juicy. A delicious ingredient that I'll seek out next time I'm picking up a jar in the grocery store, instead of the thinly sliced Mt. Olive brand I'm using now. Really delicious.

Those are the ingredients of importance. The lettuce, of course, is a wash. And although one can't tell from the pictures, the torta at El Rancho seemed significantly larger than the one from Cancun Fiest Fresh. I don't see this is a leg up, though. It was unnecessarily large, but for the sport eaters out there, I thought there might be some appreciation if I mentioned whose was the biggest.

So who's the winner? If I had to go back for this exact sandwich, I'd go to Cancun Fiesta Fresh. I liked the guac spread and was just so overwhelmed by El Rancho's mayo, my mind was made up for me. But, with that edge in the bread category, and knowing the other protein selections they offer which are right in my sweet spot (eggs and sausage!!!), my gut tells me that next time I want one of these hog-out hoagies, I'll be headed to El Rancho.

Going forward, my conclusion is this: for tacos, it's Cancun Fiesta Fresh, whose may be the very best in town; for quick and cheap tortas, I'll go El Rancho, sans mayonesa.

[Note - tortas are available at many other Mexican restaurants in town. I enjoyed a more luxe version at El Patron once, featuring sliced ribeye.]

Cancun Fiesta Fresh on Urbanspoon

El Rancho on Urbanspoon

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