One of El Salvador’s most reliably delicious foods is the torta mexicana, a dish that, despite its name, has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. If anything the long, cylindrical Salvadoran sandwiches — also referred to as tortas mexicanas estilo salvadoreño, or tortas salvadoreñas — look more like American-style subs, and offer nearly as much flexibility with the ingredients inside.
Among the many name and ingredient variants, one torta mexicana version stands out: the tortas estilo Hula Hula. The sandwich originated in San Salvador’s Parque Hula Hula, which earned its nickname when triangular neon lights were placed around poles surrounding the plaza. The glowing installation bathed vendors there in warm light, and resembled spinning hula hoops when lit.
Today you’ll find tortas Hula Hula all over El Salvador, and locally at a busy street stand in an industrial stretch of Vernon, south of Downtown LA. The year-old setup is from chef Oscar Cortez, who cooks in the medical staff’s cafeteria at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center on weekdays. Cortez began selling his sandwiches on weekends as a side hustle, and now he’s set off LA’s own tortas Hula Hula craze, with other vendors in South LA and beyond rushing to capitalize on the trend.
“There are others selling [tortas estilo Hula Hula] now but this is the only place that has the flavor that takes me back to the Plaza,” said Juan Carlos, a regular at Cortez’s stand. Carlos holds two tortas to go but stands for a moment to chat, all while dressed in an Aguila soccer jersey, one of El Salvador’s top tier soccer clubs from San Miguel.
Each tortas estilo Hula Hula is served on a broad 10-inch or foot-long pan flauta (flute bread). Cortez says he struggled at first to find the right LA bakery for his needs, but now that he has competitors he’s keeping his purveyor a secret. Each loaf is covered in mayo and mashed avocado, then layered with mustardy curtido, beef patties, strips of ham, salsa dulce, and mayo. Then, the entire sandwich gets toasted on a flat top grill; it’s big, meaty, crispy, and delicious.
Others begin to line up at a safe distance for food, eyeballing Cortez’s small vertical menu sign. The offerings include tortas Hula Hula and the mata niño, El Salvador’s other popular option. “What’s a mata niño?” asks a customer, curious of the translation to ‘child killer’ for the sandwich’s ability to satisfy hungry students.
Mata niños are made with long, skinny rolls that are dressed with mayo, then piled with cooked and cooled curtido (pickled cabbage) and filled with grilled slices of mortadella. Each sandwich is finished with refreshingly sloppy streaks of salsa dulce (ketchup) — and more mayo. After staring at the grill, then pinching his chin, the customer succumbs to his curiosity. “Make me one mata niño.”
Not everyone needs convincing. “80 percent of my customers know tortas estilo Hula Hula, and mata niños,” says Cortez, before adding: “the 20 percent that were born here never heard of these sandwiches.”
Cortez’s sandwich emporium also offers panes rellenos, a traditional dish found in El Salvadoran restaurants across Los Angeles. Options range from pan con pollo (chicken) to pan con chumpe (turkey), each jammed with curtido, relajo (tomato salsa), and watercress. It’s a worthy, if common, addition to the Vernon food scene, but in El Salvador, it’s the torta mexicana that rules the streets.
Cortez and his wife, Vilm Barahona, make 200 of the sandwiches each weekend for Salvadorans who travel to eat, often coming from as far as Van Nuys, Sylmar, Bakersfield, or in one case, from the state of Maryland, where a well-known tortas Hula Hula stand serves the Salvadoran community there.
With a lifetime spent in food service, Cortez say that he’s happy with his newfound weekend fame. In San Salvador he cooked at Comedor Isabel, and in Los Angeles he has been supporting his family with his weekday job cooking for doctors and other healthcare professionals at Kaiser. Like many Central-Americans, that makes Cortez a frontline worker during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Like Tortas del Zarco in San Salvador, or Santa Ana’s Torta Loca La Antorcha and it’s throw pillow-sized sandwiches, Cortez’s tortas mexicanas, Salvadoran-style, have gone from weekend side hustle to the new benchmark for Salvadoran street sandwiches in Los Angeles.
Right now there are no days off for Cortez. He would rather be cooking anyway, making tortas mexicanas that he knows will be hard for his competitors to beat. Because to him, the food isn’t a trend, it’s personal. “I cook my food the way I want to eat.”
Tortas Hula Hula, 10425 S. Avalon Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90003, (323) 627-3232/(323) 387-9309