Tortas, the hearty sandwiches of Mexico, are typically found in small, independently operated restaurants. So far, there’s been no “Torta Bell” to standardize these street foods and sell them from drive-thru windows under a national brand. That’s probably a positive, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation in the torta experience. Tortas Paquime is a small local brand of torta restaurants with a handful of locations throughout Phoenix, one of which happens to be just a quarter mile north of the planned Baseline/Central Station on the South Central Extension.
The South Phoenix location of Tortas Paquime faces Central Avenue at the leading edge of a large shopping center on the north side of the Western Canal. That particular corridor is slated to receive an upgraded multi-use path in the years to come, offering another non-automotive route to complement the light rail tracks currently under construction through the neighborhood. The nearest bike rack is found outside the Food City supermarket that anchors the shopping center. Maybe there will be some closer options added as the canal path is developed.
Tortas Paquime is easy to spot due to its colorful signs. There’s a patio for outdoor eating and a bright, clean interior that looks almost like a fast food franchise but with a bit more individuality. A bit of history of the brand can be found, in all places, on the wallpaper that lines the bathrooms walls. Some quick reading while taking care of business will let the customer know that Tortas Paquime is nearly two decades old and lost its original location in a fire. Since then, several new locations have sprouted around the city, including this one in South Phoenix.
During the walk up to the counter, the first food visible is a display case full of various forms of pan dulce. Keep these in mind for dessert or to take home for later. At the counter, there’s an overhead menu listing the entrees and sides. Naturally, the menu leads with sandwiches. There’s a namesake Torta Paquime in which the featured meat is pork sirloin. Think of this as the restaurant’s version of the long-lived advertising slogan “the other white meat.” It’s a tender cut of pork with a mild flavor not overshadowed by the torta toppings inside the telera.
That telera, or bread, is the essence of any torta. The teleras as Tortas Paquime have the signature three-part structure in their oblong forms. They’re slightly sweet and yielding in texture, so keeping the paper wrapping around the sandwich as much as possible is recommended to prevent the sandwich from falling apart and become a knife-and-fork meal. Of course, one way to deal with a messy sandwich is to lean into the experience by ordering a torta ahogada, in which the entire structure is soaked in a spicy red sauce and topped with onions.
Other torta choices include chicken and pork milanesa, in which either meat is flattened into a thin cutlet and breaded. The cochinita pibil is a more flavorful option of marinated, roasted pork. The Torta Mexicana comes across almost like a Latin-tinged Philadelphia steak sandwich with its mix of ribeye, mushrooms, peppers, onions, lettuce, and jack cheese accentuated with refried beans. All sandwiches here are accessorized with avocado, tomato, lettuce, jalapenos, and mayonnaise. One omission is the slab of queso fresco found at many other torta shops.
Most of the tortas are served by default with crisp house-made potato chips, but a few come in combo meals with skin-on fries. Both potato preparations are remarkably good, a nice contrast with some places where the chips might come in a bag and the fries might seem an afterthought. Among the other sides available, the best choice by far is the esquites, creamy corn in a cup with seasonings, lime, and cotija cheese. The beans and rice are unremarkable, the former not having a lot of flavor and the latter being undercooked when sampled.
Tortas Paquime is not just about tortas, though. The emphasis on Mexican street foods, coupled with the restaurant’s own creativity, produces some appealing selections of tacos, tostadas, and other uses of the various ingredients. The tacos volteados are topped with cochinita pibil, melted jack cheese, and a generous scoop of avocado. The barbacao tacos adopt a simpler format with just cilantro and onions on top of the exceedingly tender meat inside the corn tortillas. The chilanga is essentially a quesadilla artfully decorated with crema and guacamole.
Under ordinary operating conditions, Tortas Paquime has a self-service salsa bar with an impressive range of options for accessorizing tortas and tacos. Currently, however, salsa is instead dispensed upon request at the counter. All are worthwhile, and the red is particularly fiery. To extinguish that burn, the restaurant offers a supple flan; a selection of nieves, or fruity ice creams; and many of the snacks and sweets often served at raspado shops. Think chamoyada with mango, tamarind, and Japanese fried peanuts or strawberries with cream.
Tortas Paquime offers fountain drinks, iced tea, Mexican bottled sodas, and a daily selection of aguas frescas like horchata or limonada. As is common with most tortas shops, there is no liquor license. Places like Paquime showcase the potential of the torta, often overshadowed by the taco in the United States. With its sleek, modern look and efficient fast-casual model, the restaurant feels in some way like it could work as a franchise, but it also retains a sense of authenticity and a local feel that a “Torta Bell,” if one even existed, could ever manage.
7227 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85042