Food to Drive You Loco 

Two stop-and-eat spots in East Oakland put you deep in the heart of Mexico.

The siren-like scent of frying chorizo emanates from La Torta Loca. A block away from the food stand, just as we spot its bright yellow awning, we catch our first whiff. Our steps quicken.

The stand sells tortas, Mexican sandwiches that are more authentically Mexican than burritos and in certain regions more popular than tacos. But La Torta Loca offers tacos, too, along with tostadas, quesadillas, and less familiar Mexican antojitos (corn masa-based snacks). The list of fillings rivals that of a sub shop: chicken, "wienies," roasted peppers, tripe, roasted and stewed red meats. Above the window a row of photos displays the shop's specialties. "You may be addicted," reads a thought bubble touching the top edge of the menu.

The chorizo smell just won't go away. It makes our twenty-minute wait for the food torturous. We stand on bustling International Boulevard in a small crowd of diners -- watching shoppers, dodging strollers, and puzzling over the cart of molded puddings next door. Occasionally the man at the window beckons, and everyone peers over to see what the lucky winner leaves with. Finally he beckons to us. We load up with plastic bags and takeaway cups and head for the car to eat.

Some tortas are tiny, bready sandwiches, in which a French roll is split down the center, smeared with refried beans, and then stacked like an American sandwich with taqueria-style grilled meats, shredded lettuce, tomato, avocado, perhaps a little salsa, and crema. Tortas locas are another species: each side is a butterflied roll, griddled so that it is flat and at once crunchy and fall-apart soft.

Keeping the sandwich together is a constant struggle, I found on my first visit. A quick nibble at a stoplight dumped half the filling on my lap. This is my second visit. I wasn't impressed with my first torta loca, and not just because I had to scrub it out of my jeans. The torta poblana was a little burned, and contained a gloopy, underseasoned mass of sautéed onions, roasted poblano chiles, and a too-small dollop of melted cheese. It needed salt and a hefty dollop of salsa.

But the smell of the chorizo brought me back. This time I try a thin layer of the spicy, loose sausage on a huaracha, a Mexican pizzetta. Named after the sandal whose sole they resemble, huaraches are long, slightly tough masa cakes covered with meat, onions, a little queso fresco, and cilantro.

Like all the many forms of pork and beef on the menu, the chorizo is extraordinary. And the torta with pork al pastor redeems both the sandwich and al pastor, roast pork that too often is baked into hard chunks of salty but otherwise uninteresting meat. La Torta Loca's tender al pastor has been slow-roasted, basted in a chile-based barbecue sauce, and shredded. Its juices have soaked into the bread but don't render it soggy. Gloriously messy is a pambaso milanese, a specialty of Mexico City, where the owner is from. Torta fixin's, sour cream, and milanese (a breaded and pan-friend pork cutlet) are squashed between two rust-colored slabs of French roll soaked in a chile ancho sauce and then griddled until crispy. Impossible to eat with the hands, but packed with flavor.

Between the chorizo and the pambaso, my friends and I end up with rings of orange oil around our mouths. Though La Torta Loca serves casual food, it's unwieldy to eat in casual settings like cars and park benches. If you're lucky, you can eat at one of the four seats at the counter. Solid plates, metal silverware, and many napkins would make a difference, but there's no time to haul it home -- the dishes taste best straight off the griddle.

It's possible to eat vegetarian at La Torta Loca, but the grease is inescapable. Small, thin corn tortillas, folded into half-moons and griddled in oil, have been stuffed with a bit of melting cheese and a choice of filings: sautéed mushrooms, piquant roasted strips of dark-green poblano chiles, and (straying a bit) stewed chicharrones -- chunks of pork skin, meaty and a little chewy. Queso fresco, lettuce, and a dark red chile ancho sauce, mild and unacidic, are sprinkled on top. For lighter fare, try the tostadas or sopes, triple-thick corn tortillas topped with meats, chopped lettuce, tomato, avocado, and onions. Ours contains tinga, a fiery layer of braised and shredded beef. "This is some of the best Mexican I've ever had," says my roommate, who never travels this far out International Boulevard.

Months ago I tried my first loco-style torta at Taqueria Sinaloa, a taqueria truck up the street on the corner of International and 22nd Avenue. Slightly oilier from the grill, the torta had first been spread with refried beans and then layered with moist poached chicken, chopped lettuce, and salsa. Two friends and I return for lunch to compare its antojitos to La Torta Loca's. On this lunchtime visit the mob surrounding the window is three deep. My friend Ed notices that "Taqueria Sinaloa" is also painted on the building behind the truck, so we enter it instead.

On the walls -- covered in white plastic siding, like a trailer turned inside out -- four Billy Basses hang lifelessly on their plastic mounting boards. They are ignoring the mariachi band sobbing from the jukebox and the nattering of the television on the wall. Sprays of carnations dyed electric shades of green, pink, and blue light up all the plastic-covered tables. The smell of barbecued meat fills the air.

Turns out the indoor Taqueria Sinaloa doesn't serve tortas -- it's a sit-down restaurant. Our waitress delivers full-sized menus listing all the standard antojitos along with breakfast egg dishes, full entrées, and dinner-size bowls of soup. Ed, Joe, and I know that we're going to be getting big plates of food, but it doesn't stop us from putting away a basket of corn chips. The salsa verde, chunky with chiles and onions, needs a vehicle. Our waitress brings us another basket; we groan and eat half.

The food takes fifteen minutes to arrive. As each of the two tables of paint-spattered lunchtime diners exit, they leave the remains of their meals, which sit there until we leave. After thirty minutes we're the only table remaining.

A misstep in my knowledge of geography sends us away from the seafood and toward the fajitas. I have forgotten that the state of Sinaloa faces the Baja peninsula along the northwest shores of Mexico, so I tell Eddie he can order the fajitas. A mound of thickly sliced onions, red and green peppers, tomatoes, and steak spatter and smoke on a cast-iron platter. They come with large, nubbly homemade corn tortillas instead of wheat ones. The steak and vegetables lack seasoning, but Ed compensates by spreading a thick coating of meaty refried beans on each tortilla and rolling them around large scoops of the meat.

Joe's ceviche tostada is piled high with nail-polish-pink shrimp, onions, tomatoes, and avocado chunks. An additional squirt of fresh lime gives its tartness a fresh, floral note. The tough pork on his al pastor taco -- onions, cilantro, a dab of hot red salsa sprinkled on top -- can't compete with La Torta Loca's.

I've tasted few enchiladas verdes that have rivaled Taqueria Sinaloa's, though. First I had to find them under a haystack of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and cream cheese. The chile verde sauce is a subtle note, letting the meaty shredded chicken come through, and the tortillas are still chewy and soft. My Mexican rice has more presence than most, and the puddle of refried beans on the side are coated in crumbled white queso fresco.

La Torta Loca and Taqueria Sinaloa are but two of the innumerable ever-shifting row of taqueria trucks and food stands that line International Boulevard. Serving food that bests that of most of the higher-priced Mexican restaurants to the north and east, they merit weeks of information-gathering, exploring, and cataloguing. Where to start? Just follow your nose.

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