By Frank Sabatini Jr.
From a wall behind the order counter hangs a photograph of a handsome Miguel A. Rojas, the restaurateur who not only raised the creative bar on tortas, but named them lovingly after numerous siblings, nieces and nephews.
The businessman’s sudden passing a year and a half ago left some of those family members in charge of keeping his spirited legacy alive at La Torta Cafe, which Rojas launched in 1994. Prior to that, he had moved to San Diego from his native Mexacali, attended high school here, and took a job in the maintenance department for a retirement home.
Yet by the time he was 9 years old, he had a firm vision.
“He always loved tortas. And he told my mother back then, ‘I’m going to someday make the best tortas in town,’” recalls his sister, Nohemi Ryback, who manages the eatery.
Having eaten tortas from all corners of San Diego County over the past few decades, I can attest that Rojas’ words as a child were prophetic.
The cafe’s menu offers 40 varieties of the Mexican sandwich, which traditionally captures avocado, veggies and meat within soft telera rolls. The yeast bread is a close cousin to French baguette, boasting thin crispy crusts and soft centers.
Rojas developed his own recipe for the rolls in conjunction with California Baking Company, which still adheres to the proprietary formula. His are fluffier than most and sport an exceptional, toasted crust studded with cornmeal for a bit of added texture. After minimal chew, they practically melt in your mouth.
In his peak, Rojas operated six locations of La Torta Cafe throughout San Diego County. But when the economy tanked a decade ago, he sold them while retaining his La Mesa restaurant, which sits a stone’s throw away only from his original location.
Here, the cottage-like structure is fronted by a garden patio. Inside, a cute and homey design embodies a salsa bar in the middle of the room. The tortas really don’t need any of their enhancements, but if you opt for tacos or burritos, don’t overlook the creamy jalapeno and chipotle salsas.
Visiting as a twosome, we started out with Rojas’ original chicken tortilla soup, a seemingly classic Mexican pottage but flaunting the additions of sour cream and chili paste in the broth. It’s faintly creamy, mildly spicy and grandly comforting.
Per demand, items such as rolled tacos, burritos and chimichangas were added in Rojas’ later years. We would have skipped over them all until learning that the rolled tacos (served four to an order) are made in-house. And you’ll know it upon first bite.
Available in beef or white chicken meat, we ordered the latter. Their casings are the most delicate I’ve ever encountered, almost like pastry tubes. The chicken inside escaped that odd boiled flavor I often encounter in other places, and the medley of tomatoes, shredded lettuce and grated cheeses on top were ultra fresh.
Then came the main event, a trio of tortas, half of which we ended up taking home due to their generous size.
We chose as our first the “Miguel Cubana,” a culinary self-portrait of the man with a keen knack for bringing semblance to multiple ingredients. Rojas somehow knew that roasted pork, Milanesa (breaded steak), melty panela cheese, grilled peppers and onions, avocado, and mayo would make for a well-conceived outcome. And so what if it tastes as far removed from a traditional Cubano sandwich as the geographical distance between Baja and Cuba. This version hardly disappoints.
The No. 21 is “Nohemi’s chile relleno” torta.
“I’m not a vegetarian, but lean toward it,” Ryback added in recognizing that her brother had hit the mark naming the creation after her.
Served open face, the oval-shaped roll takes on a smearing of chipotle mayo that permeates the heated bread like melted butter. A freshly battered pasilla chile stuffed judiciously with white cheese is draped over one half while fanned-out slices of avocado occupy the other. Everything jived.
My favorite, however, was “Nicole’s chipotle” torta, which Rojas named after a niece. Available with either marinated beef or all-white chicken, we chose the latter. Layered with the finely chopped poultry were onions, avocado, tomatoes, mayo and the same creamy chipotle sauce offered at the salsa bar. The result is a soft and creamy torta that your teeth effortlessly glide through with zero force.
In terms of the number of ingredients contained within the tortas, ours were tame in comparison to many others on the menu.
The “Natalia,” named after Rojas’ daughter, features a hearty stacking of roast beef, ham, turkey, avocado, and cheddar and jack cheeses. Or, in honor of his grandfather, the “Pancho’s” layers in beans with turkey, ham and cheddar.
For burger lovers, the “hamburguesa” torta impresses with two quarter-pound patties grilled with barbecue sauce. With the additions of cheddar and Swiss cheeses, ranch dressing and avocado, you’ve encountered the most belly-stretching torta in San Diego County.
All of the tortas are served with home fries — basically thinly sliced fried potatoes with crispy veneers that reminded me of those I’ve consumed in multiple visits to Germany, a country that does wonders with spuds.
Ryback pointed out that her brother was a stickler for quality and presentation, which we found obvious. He was a longtime resident of La Mesa, and revered within the community by customers and fellow business people alike.
“We haven’t changed a thing in how he ran the business. He was a merchant advocate and we’re trying to keep going everything he did here. His legacy lives on,” she added.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.