Looking for a fresh sandwich so fat that you hold it in both hands, the first wide bite a burst of Mexican flavors? Cut in half, a torta is a packed beauty of thin, colored layers: salsa, cilantro, meat, cheese, crusty bread.
I was used to hearing my son rave about tortas when he lived in San Francisco. Now, after biting into one at Azteca2 on Patton Avenue, a Reuben seems small — a ham-and-cheese square, pizza thin. Azteca2 offers a wide variety of tortas, including one so big that the owner discouraged me from buying that one as a first try. Even so, the “small” torta included two huge halves, enough for two hungry people or one piggish one.
Azteca2 is actually a small Mexican grocery with a few tables at the back opposite a glass bakery case full of Mexican pastries, including discus-sized sugared cookies and buns dressed up in labyrinths of icing.
Another find, El Torito off Patton Avenue on the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Emma Road, also serves tortas and probably 10 or more types tacos from lengua (tongue) to pastor (pork) wrapped in corn tortillas. El Torito has a side room with tables and a range of condiments to add to the undressed tacos. A small grocery with everything from beans in bulk to fresh cheeses, the store also has a fresh meat market at the rear. The day I was there, no one spoke English but pointing worked, and friendly customers were happy to help someone with poco español.
You’ll find a broader menu — tacos, tamales, sopes, enchiladas, quesadillas, tortas, burritos, chilaquile and more — at Mr. Suave Tortilleria on Patton in West Asheville. “Suave,” which means “kind” in Spanish, is owner Osvaldo Sabino’s second son’s name. “I wanted the business in my boy’s name,” says Sabino, who first sold his authentic Mexican food — not Tex-Mex or California-style — out of a trailer on Patton in 2006, moving a year later to his current location.
The spot is largely takeout but has a few small tables, and Sabina plans to add more. He’s also stoking up his grill to begin selling carnitas, shredded pieces of roast pork. Sabino also makes his own green and red salsas, and sells homemade corn tortillas — ”No preservatives or chemicals,” he says. I’ve had the tamales — a spicy filling swaddled in warm masa — comforting and delicious.
Sabino sells his foods to Banditos and Tiger Bay Café, both on Haywood Road in West Asheville, the French Broad Food Co-op on Biltmore Avenue and the LAB on Lexington Avenue.
Maria De Souza, owner of La Gringa Tamalera, offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free tamales, empanadas, soups and more at Asheville’s two winter markets — the YMCA Indoor Winter Tailgate Market 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturdays at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church on Merriman Avenue and the Asheville City Market 10 a.m.-noon Saturdays inside the Public Works Building on Charlotte Street. Summer markets will include West Asheville, Weaverville, Liberty Street Market, East Asheville, Charlotte Street Market and probably Mars Hill. “I’m waiting for the farmers to have veggies,” says De Souza, who comes from Venezuela. “My food is Mexican, but the style is Caribbean.”
Tiger Bay Café, a small spot at the back of Battle Cat Coffee Shop on Haywood Road, offers a mix of Latin and American food, plus one West Indian dish daily. I tried the breakfast tacos filled with soft scrambled eggs, cilantro, onion, cotija cheese, fresh lime, tomato and bacon — way tastier than plain old eggs and toast. The menu includes lots of pulled pork and a range of sandwiches from chicken tacos to a Cuban panini. The café also makes the baked goods for Battle Cat, including a really good chocolate chip cookie — not Latin, but one mouthful and you won’t care.