When it comes to Mexican food, my heart belongs to the taco. During every trip to beloved Seattle taco bus Tacos El Asadero, I become momentarily convinced that the taco is the perfect food—the ultimate combination of a meat and starch, spice and tang. It's portable and small, therefore lending itself to be consumed in large quantities. I'd never given much thought to the torta (often referred to as a "Mexican sandwich"), though I've always noticed the torta's presence on the menus of all the best Mexican joints and taco trucks in town. Compared to a taco, a sandwich seemed so ordinary.
A few months ago, a friend told me about Barriga Llena, a restaurant offering only tortas. Barriga Llena has been serving tortas down in Federal Way for five years, and just opened a second location in Greenwood on Aurora Avenue. I was intrigued. I was also utterly charmed by the fact that Barriga Llena translates to "full belly" and that its logo is a giant capital "B" with a distended stomach protruding over a belt. On my first visit to Barriga Llena's website (which is entirely in Spanish), I was greeted by the fat, happy "B," animated thought bubbles indicating that it was sleeping and dreaming contentedly of tortas.
Subsequent research into tortas revealed that, like the Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches everyone loves so much, tortas are the result of French occupation. Mexicans turned French bread into smaller, softer rolls called bolillo or telera, and filled them with traditional meats and cheese. Today, tortas are found throughout Mexico, and sold on nearly every street corner in Mexico City. Preferred torta fillings vary regionally, but most are dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, refried beans, and avocado. I knew it was time to visit Barriga Llena when I came across this quote from a woman attending Mexico's annual festival celebrating this national food: "Mexicans will never stop eating tortas. It's our vitamin T."
At Barriga Llena's tiny, pristine location on busy Aurora Avenue, I had the Barrigona ($6.99 in Seattle, $6.49 in Federal Way), the "torta de la casa," filled with milanesa (breaded, fried steak), roasted pork leg, spicy chorizo, a hot dog, as well as lettuce, tomato, onion, and avocado. This torta—amazing in its size, structure, and flavor—is not for the small of stomach. It is a greasy-meat lover's dream—delicious oils and meat juices mingle together, each wondrous bite different from the next. (The hot dog, however, is entirely unnecessary and may be removed.) I recommend slathering it with the smoky, red chipotle sauce and adding some of the pickled jalapeños and carrots that sit on each table. The Barrigona maybe be a bit overwhelming for most, but the Toluqueña ($6.99), is a fantastic, lighter meaty option—moist carne asada and more of Barriga Llena's chorizo that I couldn't get enough of.
Turns out that Barriga Llena cures its own sausage, and it's well worth the half-hour trip to the original location in Federal Way, if only to see the beautiful dark chorizo hanging behind the register. Located just off of Pacific Highway South on a quiet cul-de-sac that seems as though it was once a quiet campground, the older Barriga Llena has a hand-painted wooden sign above the door and the same brightly colored murals and painted, carved tables as the Aurora location, but everything feels a little more settled and comfortable.
I wasn't as thrilled by the tortas I ordered at the Barriga Llena in Federal Way. The Diabla ($6.49)—carne enchilada, pineapple, and Oaxacan cheese—fell a little flat. The steak, rubbed with chili powder, was not nearly as spicy as it should have been, and while the pineapple slice was charred on the grill, it couldn't overcome its obvious canned origins. And without piles of meat to distract me, I couldn't help but be discouraged by the sandwich's dry, preshredded iceberg lettuce and sad, pale tomato slices.
That canned pineapple got me thinking. What makes a sandwich delicious is good, high-quality ingredients—without them, it's just a boring, mediocre food item. Same goes for the Mexican sandwich—without fresh fixings, a torta was just a typical, sad sandwich.
Thankfully, I was jolted out of my dismal thoughts by my pierna torta ($5.99)—roasted pork leg, with all the fixings. That one beautiful, generous piece of pork, tender and moist, with a wide strip of gloriously crispy fat on its edge, transcended its less than thrilling accompaniments. With that piece of pork, my affection for Barriga Llena was restored and cemented. That pierna torta was so much more than a sandwich.