Around 1930, in Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, a street vendor accidentally dropped an entire torta into a vat of spicy salsa. According to Don Ignacio “Nacho” Saldaña, the vendor’s assistant, the customer proclaimed, “You drowned it.” — after which he ate it anyway — and the torta ahogada (the drowned sandwich) was born. The vendor was Don Luis De La Torre and his son is still making the torta at his own shop in Guadalajara today. Soon, torta vendors across the City of Roses were dunking sandwiches into their own versions of the fiery red chile de árbol salsa, some thickened with pumpkin and sesame seeds while others used roasted tomatoes, cinnamon, cumin, clove and vinegar. The scorching chile sauce wasn’t for everyone — another definition for ahogada is “choking” — so milder versions were devised. At Tortas Ahogadas El Güerito, the restaurant owned by Saldaña, a spicy and a mild version are both popular.
The bread of a proper torta ahogada is a birote salado, which is a salty, crusty roll with a soft interior. The bread stays crunchy despite being drenched in sauce and is the choice of purists. It is, however, very common to see the hoagie-roll-style bolillo used in Houston. This makes for a softer sandwich with a texture similar to a chopped barbecue beef sandwich.
Regardless of the preparation, plenty of napkins are recommended. In Guadelajara the traditional filling is borrego (lamb). In Houston, carnitas are the most common but fajita meat, chicken, chorizo, black beans, sour cream, avocado, radish, pickled onions, or any combination are also popular.
In the last few years, the sandwich has gained popularity in cities across the country. Last year, José R. Ralat from Texas Monthly declared the torta ahogadas at Birotes Tortas Ahogadas in San Antonio to be among the best Mexican Dishes of the year. Robert Rosenburg, AKA Chef Bob and former food writer for the Public News, predicted on his Facebook feed that the torta ahogada would be the most copied Houston dish of 2021. “It is fantastic carnitas in a roll that has been saturated with a spicy tomato sauce served with lots of pickled white onion and radish slices. It is a delicious mess,” he enthused. He highly recommends the version at Dichos Taqueria on Wayside as a perfect example. Houston has other great versions of tortas ahogadas and some notable variations on the theme. One is the torta en mole from Fruit Ideas Micheladas, which is a torta with choice of meat filling that is smothered in mole.
Despite its popularity in general, tortas ahogadas are still a rare find in the Houston area, but we rounded up some essential places to find this elusive and decadent sandwich. Know one we missed? Please let us know in the comments.
Cuchara 214 Fairview, (713) 942-0000: This Montrose eatery has been honoring Mexico City’s street food since 2012. During Saturday and Sunday brunch, two types of drowned sandwiches are available. The traditional torta ahogada is a bolillo filled with carnitas and topped with a charred pepper sauce, and Her Majesty: Pambazo, which is bread fried in guajillo pepper and stuffed with potato, chorizo, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and cream, then coated with spicy green salsa. Weekdays bring even more options such as salpicón de res, a make-your-own-tostada dish of shredded beef with tomato, olives, pickled peppers, cotija cheese, avocado and crispy corn tostadas. The ensalada de pétalos de rosa combines rose petals, pear, peach, pistachios, mixed greens and cranberries with an orange and guajillo vinaigrette. The mole negro is a turkey breast bathed is rich mole made from 34 ingredients (and served with a handmade wooden turkey that can be purchased for two dollars).
Dichos Taqueria 614 South Wayside, (832) 742-5669: This spot is popular for its regional Mexican food and its handy drive-through. Its Torta Ahogada Guadalajara Style comes stuffed with pork carnitas on a soft bolillo roll smeared with black beans. A mild tomato sauce drenches everything, but the radish and onion garnish and a spicier arbol sauce comes on the side. Need an appetizer? The ceviche, filled with fresh lime-cooked fish and pico de gallo, makes a good take-out item. The breakfast menu is extensive and includes rarities like huevos con mole, a sunny-side up egg draped over a sincronizada (a ham and cheese quesadilla), and Enfrijoladas Veracruzanas which are essentially breakfast enchiladas filled with eggs a la Mexicana served with bean sauce, chorizo and sour cream. Don’t forget to pick up an agua fresca since Jamaica, horchata and melon juice are always on hand.
Fabian’s Latin Flavors 301 Main, (713) 227-0440: Every Wednesday, downtown guests can try the torta ahogada on the open patio of one of Houston’s last Victorian buildings, which was built in 1889. The torta has refried black beans, carnitas, queso fresco, guacamole and is dipped in a rich carnita sauce. The menu reflects favorites from Latin America such as Puerto Rican Tostones, plantains that have been mashed and fried into a crisp chip that are topped with shrimp in garlic sauce and queso fresco, and Bandeja Paisa, which some consider the national dish of Columbia, consisting of skirt steak, Columbian house-made chorizo, chicharron, sunny side up egg, white rice, pinto beans, avocado and relish.
Fruit Ideas Micheladas 12625 Market, (713) 637-4166: This birrieria (birria seller) and michelada bar in Jacinto City stands out for its colorful murals and quirky decor. There are two — sometimes three — versions of the drowned sandwich here. The classic version comes with a mild chile de arbol sauce, sour cream, avocado, a bolillo roll and your choice of meat. The Ahogado d’ Borrego is filled with borrego lamb, mozzarella and queso fresco. The Torta en Mole is soaked in mole with choice of fajita, borrego, chicken or carnitas inside. Birria, a tangy Jaliso dish consisting of lamb or beef stewed in fragrant tomato sauce, is present in many forms like tacos birria, birria ramen and birria by the pound. The drinks are dazzling and arrived adorned with shrimp, ceviche, beef jerky, fruit, chamoy and chile-lime seasoning and come in endless variations from boozy to healthy. The Camarochela is a michelada that comes with six shrimp, cucumber, jicama and chamoy. Non-alcoholic drinks like the Champurrada, an atole-based (corn-based) hot chocolate and horchata caliente are perfect for refreshing patio dining.
Paparruchos 3055 Sage, (713) 212-3177: This lively bar near The Galleria is a popular site for Latin music and margaritas, two things that go great with spicy pork sandwiches. Chef Jose Pineda pours a mild sauce on top of a pork carnita-stuffed bolillo and then adds a spicier sauce on the side. Get your tacos served ahogadas style on request. For fajitas, choose from lemon pepper chicken or ribeye fajitas served with rice and salad or French fries. On the lighter side, the pina colada salad comes with chicken strips or coconut shrimp, and lettuce and coconut dressing with pineapple dip on the side. Guests can dine al fresco and enjoy hookah complete with disposable tips.