Sandwich Review: Taqueria Los Gorditos

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto  -- Basho
This haiku by Basho is one of his "frog" poems. At least that's what I'm told. I can't read the Japanese, but I recognize the structure of a haiku, lines with syllables of 5 / 7 / 5. In addition to the beats, haiku also also has rules dictating kireji -- a cutting word that divides the poem -- and specific references to nature. Luckily for me this poem has been translated so I can choose an English version by Dorothy Britton and figure out what this 17th-century poet was thinking.
Listen! a frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!
When translating the poem into English Britton had to make certain decisions: whether to adhere to the syllables, how to keep the elegant feeling of the poem without dragging it through a literal interpretation, and to mind whether the haiku reflects the voice of the original author. It feels like she did a good job, choosing "stillness" to pause the poem for example.

You might ask why bother with all the rules and structure? Why not just write the dang poem!?

One reason is because structure creates an artistic tension. The rules provide a framework for the art, but they also provide a challenge. When an author decides to write a haiku she accepts the rules (syllables, imagery, theme), but she also brings a palette of words, feelings and experiences ready to stretch the framework, creating a work unique to her own vision.

The same rules can be applied to food. Take a sandwich, for example. What is a sandwich? We could say it's anything between two slices of bread, but we'd be wrong. That leaves out huge swaths of perfectly sandwich-y food: gyros, hoagies, hot dogs, and falafel in pita for example. But I think it's essential that bread of some sort come into play in the making of a sandwich.

Which reminds me of an early memory of food "lost in translation." When I was a kid we used to drive across the country from Michigan to spend the summer in Oregon. On the way we'd pass through Green RiverRock Springs, Wyoming, which was just a notch in the rocky hillside. The town had what William Least-Heat Moon calls a "three calendar" cafe, and for a couple years we'd stop there and I'd order buttermilk pancakes. One year as we pulled into town everything looked different. Either they'd struck oil, or they were building a dam, but it was a minor boom town. The red hills were dotted with mobile homes and trailers for the workers. The cafe was still there, but it had been sold to a family from Detroit who turned it into a "soul food" restaurant. My entire world (for the day) was turned upside down. They no longer offered buttermilk pancakes. Still, we were hungry, and my parents needed a rest from driving. The town was still small enough that there weren't any other choices, so ordered a safe meal: the chicken sandwich.

When it arrived I was aghast: it didn't look like any chicken sandwich I'd ever seen. The plate held half of a roasted chicken sitting on a piece of white bread smothered in gravy.

Now, as an adult, I'm intrigued by this sandwich. It was probably an authentic BBQ chicken, and it may have been something really tasty. But as a kid that I was disgusted. The chicken had bones in it, which made it impossible to eat as a sandwich. And when I tried to pick up the bread it fell apart in the gravy. My understanding of a sandwich was something I could hold in my hands and gnaw on, not a floppy mess that needed a fork and spoon. I would have preferred a blob of peanut butter and jam without the bread over this.

So, for the sake of argument, I'll say that a sandwich has to have at least one piece of bread, and the bread supports the contents of the sandwich. The bread is key to the structure of the sandwich, forming the basic rule. In this case, the translation from "chicken sandwich" to the half chicken on white bread drowned in gravy fell within the realm of sandwich. Unfortunately my 10-year old brain had not yet learned to understand this context, and so I rejected it as a meal.

One would think that with age comes experience, but time and time again I've been surprised by new forms of sandwiches. A couple years ago I was at a Mexican restaurant and saw something on the menu that caught my eye: torta. A torta is basically the fillings for a burrito, but served on an oversize hamburger bun. Called a bolillo or birote the bread can be slightly crusty and is usually about 6 to 8 inches around. So, once more my idea of "sandwich" has been translated: a burrito relocated to a bready neighborhood.

So in my sandwich foodessey I figured I should include tortas, and what better place to try a torta than at a place called "the big fat one"? Los Gorditos restaurant at SE 12th & Division is from the same owners who run the burrito cart at SE 50th & Division. I've had their Super Stacy Burrito (recommended!) and their Garbage Burrito (meh...) so I had high hopes for the tortas. At $5 a sandwich the price is right, and they offer a range of meat and other fillings: Al pastor (spicy pork), pollo, carnitas, deshebrada, lengua, cabeza, encebellados, or chicharon. I went for the al pastor and a Sprite and grabbed a seat. It arrived without any surprises: it looked pretty much as described on the menu. The bread was nicely toasted, so it added crunch to the bite, and I like that they don't put too much mayo on it. Watch out for the avocado, it wants to escape by shooting out the side. I've had better al pastor, but it was tasty enough, and I added some of the red hot sauce (they also have green hot sauce). One torta is a full meal, earning the name "los gorditos." For something amazing, however, I'd go for the Super Stacy burrito.

The translation from burrito to torta may be an ingenious innovation, but it doesn't work for me. In a burrito the beans provide enough carbs, and the tortilla suffices to hold it together. A torta bolillo is usually too floppy and tends to lose the fillings out the sides, ending up with half of it on your plate. Like the English translation of Basho, it's missing a few beats. Nevertheless, there are times when I get a craving for a torta.

In addition to burritos and tortas Los Gorditos advertises "Vegan or meat breakfast" and "soyrizo". Watch out for the parking lot, it's awkwardly placed so large cars might have to park around the corner. When I went it was "cash only," but they might accept debit cards now.

Taqueria Los Gorditos
1212 SE Division, Portland, OR
(503) 445-6289
7am - 9pm
7am - 3pm Sunday

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1 comment:

  1. I remembered the cafe being in Rock Springs, Wyoming, but my dad thought it was Green River.

    Now he's changing his mind and thinks I was probably right.