In Mexico City (and in other places in Mexico you can get your tortas in a restaurant, but you would be a pansy. The real way to eat torta is at a torta stand. Rub elbows with truck drivers and university professors !
Torta stands are a representative of the Mexican franchise class. A torta stand is a little metal cabin, invariably painted white. It is big enough for two people to fit inside, standing. Picture a cigarette pack, lying on its side, OK ? Now, the two small sides are fitted with doors, normally kept open during operation. One of the big sides has half-height windows: two of the windows have a round hole for passing tortas and money.
Torta stands will have one or two operators, depending on the time of the day. They usually cluster around tube stations and major intersections.
They have power connections of the don't ask, don't tell type. A menu is usually on display.
The cooking equipment inside the stand is limited to a griddle and a frying pot. The pot is used to fry sausages and milanesa (this would be a breaded Veal Cutlet). The griddle is used for everything else, from lightly toasting the bread to cooking eggs, melting cheese and sauteeing onions.
Torta stand etiquette is to order as soon as you arrive at the stand. The torta dude (el tipo del puesto de tortas) will mentally queue your order.
During the preparation of the delicious morsel that you ordered some questions may be asked, like
- ¿Con todo?
- With everything ? This means "with onions, cream, mayo and pickles and whatever I can think of ?". Unless you are a habituee of that particular stand, you should ask what "everything" is.
- ¿Chipotle o rajas?
- Would you like chipotle or rajas ? Notice that both are hot, so this is your last chance to say Sin picante, por favor.
- ¿Para aquí o para llevar?
- For here or to go ? This question marks the completion of your torta.
If there is a fridge outside the stand (as it is normally the case) you can simply grab a refresco of your liking, and start eating. Torta stands normally don't have agua de fruta, but if you are lucky the will have Boing!. Avoid the Trebol pop at all cost.
When the moment comes to pay, it is nice to remind the torta guy of what you had. The change he gives you will invariably be greasy. This is also the moment when you realize that he does not wash his hands between handling money and handling food.
You are not supposed to tip. When you leave, be sure to say Gracias to the torta guy, and Buen provecho to the other people at the stand.
Safety precautions: generally speaking, you should avoid tortas with meat. Torta stands usually do not have a fridge. Quesillo is quite safe.
gringo note: if you are one of those strange vegetarian guys, or Jewish, you should remember that lard can sneak into your sandwich in surprising ways.
dinero: tortas cost (at the beginning of 2001) between 8 and 20 pesos. An affordable and tasty lunch.
If you don't feel rad enough for torta at a torta stand, maybe you should try a healthy comida corrida. Or be resolutely middle-class, and go to Sanborn's or Vips.