By Carey Jones
Updated January 22, 2015
Credit: © Dan Swartz

Overshadowed by the power of tacos, tortas don’t often get their due as one of Mexico’s notable contributions to the world of handheld foods. We would like to take a moment to fix that.

Any number of shops across the country can make a mean torta, which will generally fill you up for just a few bucks. But today, we're talking about restaurant-quality tortas. These Mexican restaurants have taken the traditional torta template and upgraded it with high-quality braised meats, inventive toppings and more.

The bread. The telera, a crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside roll, is the best vehicle for any torta, though you'll also see the very similar bolillo roll. In many cases, it's split, spread with butter or lard and griddled before the toppings are added.

The filling. Carnitas or fried cutlet Milanesa, chorizo or ham—all sorts of meats can anchor a torta, but just as essential is what's on top: cheese, jalapeños, refried beans and a litany of vegetables.

Where to get it:

Oyamel, Washington, DC. The acclaimed Spanish chef José Andrés serves a number of tortas at his Penn Quarter Mexican restaurant, including the Milanesa de Pollo (breaded chicken, chipotle mole, frijoles, avocado) and the Lengua (thinly sliced beef tongue, pickled chayote squash, pasilla chile sauce, spiced mayonnaise).

Xoco and Tortas Frontera, Chicago. Rick Bayless is a household name in Chicago, thanks to his beloved Mexican restaurants Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. At his two more casual offshoots, the tortas are as sophisticated as they come. Particularly notable: the Garlic Shrimp (with poblano rajas, goat cheese, black beans and wild arugula) and the Pepito (braised short rib, Jack cheese, black beans, pickled jalapeño).

Nopalito, San Francisco. At their recently opened Inner Sunset location, this modern Mexican favorite has a full menu of tortas on fresh-baked bread, including the Chilorio(shredded pork in adobo, refried beans avocado, and more) and the Pambazo (a torta variation fully dipped in a red chile sauce).