You've probably had a Cuban sandwich in your life: a simple ham-and-cheese number, dressed with pickles and yellow mustard, and enjoyed by our early Cuban immigrant populations in Florida. You may not, however, have ever had a Mexican torta cubana sandwich, which, while closely approximating the name, is about as close to the Cuban sandwich as Arnold Schwarzenegger is to Danny DeVito.
They share some basic DNA, but that's it. Watching a cubana being made at Super Tortas D.F. in South LA is a little like listening to a friend tell you a ridiculous story: "Nuh-uh, he said what? He said THAT? Wait, you're putting WHAT in the sandwich? That's ALL going in my sandwich??"
It's a delicate task, building a torta cubana. The master sandwich builder is performing a balancing act, stuffing large -- obscene, really -- quantities of meat, egg, and vegetable into a crusty, white telera roll without turning it into an out-and-out freakshow. Anyone can make an absurd, unwieldy, difficult-to-eat sandwich (I'm looking at you, Dagwood Bumstead) but it takes a careful craftsman to make something that is at once immodest yet beautiful to behold; obscene yet eminently edible.
At once immodest yet beautiful to behold; obscene yet eminently edible
They make a lot of different sandwiches at Super Tortas D.F. (and a gracious thanks to Bill Esparza at LA Magazine for the find), including the popular rusa (Russian),holandeza (Dutch) and lambada (the forbidden torta, one assumes). All excellent, but the $8 cubana, which is $2 more expensive than every other sandwich on the menu for good reason, is the one to try.
A quick sidebar about the initials "D.F.:" it stands for "Distrito Federal," which just means Mexico City (the official name of Mexico City is "México, D. F."). It's the center of population, power, and culture in Mexico, which by default makes it the holder of many of Mexico's excellent culinary traditions (Even with the Northern-style taco tradition, many of the actual taqueros come from Mexico City). Anyhow, seeing "D.F." on a joint is something of a buzzword, a badge of honor, a "tell," if you will, that the place might be worth checking out.
Back to the sandwich: the huge telera roll, the size of a large man's loafer, is halved, smeared with mayo and margarine, and tossed on the grill. Ham goes on the grill, as does an egg. Chopped up hot dog pieces join the party. Shredded quesillo (mild, melty white cheese) goes on the grill and begins to turn a deep brown. Chorizo goes into the egg.
Long strips of breaded beef milanesa go into an ominously dark pot of bubbling oil, the color and consistency of Castrol GTX. Layer by layer, like geological stratum, these ingredients join tomato, avocado and jalapenos on the white roll. You begin to lose track of everything going into the sandwich. Pork leg gets thrown in there at some point, as does head cheese. Somehow, some way, the bread manages to contain it all.
Layer by layer, like geological stratum
The result is an outrageous, magnificent mess. Like snowflakes, no two cubanas are exactly the same. This particular cubana has a lot of salchicha (hot dog) but it doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients. The bready milanesa helps keep everything in order, acting as another layer of bun in the middle of the sandwich, Big Mac-style. The gooey quesillo slowly encroaches through the different meats and egg, creating a satisfying cohesion.
Super Tortas D.F. is a trailer (not a truck) on the south side of 41st street by a grocery store parking lot, near Wadworth elementary school in South LA. "Super Tortas D.F. Especialidad en Tortas Cubanas y Combinadas" is painted on the broad side of the trailer in airbrushed letters, like you might see on a t-shirt or someone's tricked-out Honda.
The tortero behind the madness is a kind-faced, middle-aged man who will amicably chat with you while he makes your sandwich, either in Spanish or in careful English. He has run Super Tortas D.F. since coming to LA from Mexico City seven years ago; here's hoping he doesn't stop anytime soon.
Super Tortas D.F. is located at approximately 1098 E 41st St (at Central Ave.) in South LA. They are open Thursday-Sunday; opening times "depend on the day," according to the owner, but they're usually open by 4 p.m. They close at 11 p.m. Cash only.