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In Praise of a Soggy Sandwich

Top SF torta shops like La Torta Gorda and Tortas Los Picudos know the power of a sauce-soaked bun

La Torta Gorda’s pambazo
Luke Tsai

In almost every food context, the word “soggy” is something of a pejorative: No one wants soggy French fries or soggy corn flakes, any more than they want to trudge around in a pair of soggy socks. A soggy sandwich, on the other hand? That can be a thing of beauty, as anyone who’s known the pleasures of a saucy meatball sub, a French dip, or a dripping wet Chicago beef sandwich can attest. The whole point of these sandwiches is for the bread to soak up the flavors of the sauce or the au jus — in the most extreme cases, you have to eat them with a knife and fork.

In San Francisco, there’s at least one class of restaurant that has been quietly carrying the soggy sandwich torch for decades now: the Mission District’s Mexican torta shops. Probably the best known of these local gems is La Torta Gorda, where amid owner Armando Macuil’s menu of Puebla- and other central Mexico-style tortas, you can also find one of the city’s best, and only, versions of a pambazo — a type of red-tinted, sauce-soaked sandwich.

To make his version, Macuil first dunks a round telera roll in guajillo chile salsa, then crisps it on the griddle before piling on a thick layer of soft chorizo-and-potato hash, shredded lettuce, sour cream, and queso fresco. A little bit of the salsa soaks into the bread, just enough to make its insides pleasurably squishy, and to add a tinge of chile heat to every bite.

La Torta Gorda’s red-tinted pambazo on a plate
The pambazo
La Torta Gorda

“I like it a little on the crispy side — not too soggy,” Macuil says, noting that the joy of the pambazo lies in the contrasting textures — soft and crispy, creamy and squishy, with the crunch of the lettuce adding a welcome bit of freshness. It’s the same principle that guides the construction of La Torta Gorda’s better-known, panini-style pressed tortas. The best-selling pierna enchilada (aka, the #12), for instance, is pulled pork sandwich that has a fully crisp exterior, but so many saucy, juicy elements inside — including a big ladleful of adobo salsa — that the inside of the bread gets that same squishy, sauce-soaked effect.

The #12, with pulled pork, avocado, refried beans, queso fresco, and adobo salsa
Luke Tsai

Just a few blocks further down 24th Street, Tortas Los Picudos makes a strong case for what might be the greatest soggy sandwich in all of San Francisco. Like its owner, Francisco Martin, the restaurant’s torta ahogada (or “drowned torta”) hails from Mexico’s Jalisco region — specifically the city of Guadalajara, where according to its somewhat apocryphal origin story, the sandwich was invented when a cook accidentally dropped the carnitas torta he was making into a container of salsa.

At Los Picudos, Martin serves a fairly classic version of that first, delicious mistake: tender carnitas, slow-cooked in a pot of lard; refried beans; and raw red onions all get piled onto a soft telera roll. Then, in the key step, the whole sandwich gets positively drenched in a spicy, tomato-based chile de árbol salsa. (If you’re bringing the torta home, get the salsa on the side so you can pour it on just before eating.)

The sauce-drenched drowned torta at Tortas Los Picudos
Luke Tsai

The bread, in this case, isn’t just a carb-laden mode of transportation — a way to shuttle meat, cheese, and vegetables into your mouth, in the manner of most sandwiches. Instead, the bread itself becomes the main vehicle for flavor, adding a pop of acidity and mouth-tingling heat to every bite. Its sogginess is its biggest virtue — so soft and comforting that even chewing isn’t strictly necessary.

At this point, we’ve entered full-on knife-and-fork sandwich territory, but Martin tells Eater SF that he fully embraces the sogginess of the torta ahogada, even if it means a messier eating experience. “I like to eat it with my hands,” he says. “I think it tastes better when you get a little salsa on your fingers.”

Tortas Los Picudos

2969 24th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 824-4199 Visit Website

La Torta Gorda

2833 24th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 642-9600 Visit Website