When stacked up against its more familiar, more frequently ordered cousins (tacos, burritos, or enchiladas), the lowly torta is an often-overlooked entity. I’m just as guilty as anyone else, as I often find it difficult to pry myself away from the warm embrace of the pastor or chorizo taco, snuggly tucked away in a double-wrapping of soft corn tortillas. Yet quite frequently, while dining at any number of the more “authentic” Mexican establishments, I often notice a handful of patrons feasting on hot and hefty tortas (which seems to be particularly popular with the lunchtime crowd). This observation is generally followed by a self-inquisition of, “Why the @#%$ didn’t I order that?!” Recently however, on a visit to Mercado San Jose, located off Geyer Springs Rd. in southwest Little Rock, I was determined to make room on my dinner plate for the tantalizing torta…and I’ll be forever grateful that I did.
In addition to serving a restaurant menu full of dependable Mexican classics, Mercado San Jose operates a bustling in-store panaderia. Visit nearly any time of day (but especially around the 5-6 p.m. hour, when many patrons are stopping by on their way home from work) and you will see lines of men and women with plastic trays stacked high with all varieties of sweet and savory Mexican pastries. From pan dulce to bolillos, San Jose is doing it all and its certainly one of the more impressive bakeries of this sort in Little Rock. With regards to the tortas served by the restaurant portion of the market, their bread is baked daily in-house, ensuring that each sandwich is made with fresh, quality ingredients; nothing has been sitting around in some plastic bag for days, waiting for the next unfortunate customer.
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Diners are able to order their tortas filled with the meat of their choice, but pork or beef are the preferred options. While their menu board details around half a dozen meat selections, in reality they may only be serving three or four that day. I opted for the carne asada torta with all the fixin’s…and for good measure, I ordered a cabeza taco (also a very wise decision).
It took merely one bite of my torta to realize I was holding something special in my seemingly unworthy hands. A standout torta really comes down to the bread, and in this, San Jose’s version is flawless. Some tortas I’ve eaten in the past arrive slightly too bready, the thick, dense roll often overwhelming its flavorful entrails. Not the case at San Jose. Here the bread is thinner, lighter, but still able to adequately buoy up the wealth of ingredients within. The bread is lightly toasted, imparting a slight crisp to its exterior, with subtle buttery undertones at each bite. The fillings are no less extraordinary, the perfect blending of cool and hot, spicy and creamy. The sandwich gets filled with tender sliced beef, ripe red tomatoes, freshly shredded lettuce, avocado slices, refried beans, cilantro, and melted white cheese. Then a spread of Mexican crema gets slathered across one side of the sandwich. Finish it off with housemade fiery red or mild green tomatillo salsa, and you are assured to have one of the finest tortas you’ll ever bear witness to.
The cabeza taco was also quite noteworthy. Comprised of the meat (and other unknown cephalic odd-and-ends) of a steamed cow’s head, the taco was intensely flavorful, with a deep, rich beefy flavor. The meat tasted as if it had been stewing for hours in the rendered fats and juices native to a cow’s melon. Simply adorned with chopped onion and cilantro, it’s a testament to the fact that often the greatest Mexican cuisine is also the simplest.
Southwest Little Rock is truly the cultural epicenter of our noble city. Diners searching for a true taste of authenticity would be wise to frequently explore this region, and expose the many treasures this part of town has to offer. Mercado San Jose in only one of many restaurants of its kind in this corner of Little Rock, but it may well be the finest of them all.
(Mercado San Jose is located at 7411 Geyer Springs Rd, Little Rock. The restaurant is open from 9 am – 6:45 pm todos los dias)