La Vida Torta
2700 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
1515 E. Lake St.; Minneapolis
Sometimes when I'm not wasting time chasing squirrels around the yard with sheets of chocolate fondant, I'm reading food articles about Los Angeles. Oh, Los Angeles. It is so big.
It is so big that the main theme in its food articles always seems to be: My God, this place is so big, and did you know that all the people who live in this two percent of it eat every day at Chinese Ships? (Really, a closed restaurant name. Also the name of a certain chocolate-enrobed squirrel I know of, but that's another story.) Food writing in Los Angeles seems like a constant effort of letting the few-hundred-thousand people who read newspapers know what the 20 million people around them are up to--and the 20 million are up to such a highly specific, radically different thing than we are up to that it really makes me miss Loretta's Tea Room.
Remember that place? It's long gone, but it was a south Minneapolis little-old-lady restaurant that served things like individually molded Jell-O salads--filled with grated carrots, sour cream, and horseradish, no less. It's not Loretta's food that I miss (shudder), but the sense that it expressed something native, essential, and different about a world of people who lived here.
What was it that hot dishes or bizarre Jell-O salads said? I'm not totally sure, that being the nature of abstract art. But it was something about the massive food companies based here, like Pillsbury and General Mills, and how they used local supermarkets and newspapers as their practical laboratories, promoting recipes and lifestyles in which combining things from boxes and cans was cooking. Add that to the winter-isolation climate, which discouraged the use of expensive fresh vegetables. Now factor in a utopian social-justice and feminist streak that (vaguely) held that it was better for women to be volunteering in the community than selfishly laboring over beef bourguignon. Do all that math, and I think it can be truly said that nowhere on earth was there more enthusiasm--intellectual, civic, and even religious--for combining prefab boxes of corporate products into meals. That led, inevitably I think, to a real cultural fondness for anything very creamy, like gravy, cheese sauce, or that weird supermarket green-tinted sour cream called "guacamole," which is necessary to make the meals from boxes of nothing taste better. Then came the Tuscanization of America, and all those unsophisticated Jell-O salads and cream gravies went away, and crappy mozzarella tomato salads came to rule the earth.
Does that make you feel sad? It's counterintuitive, I know, but it sort leaves me feeling sad. Even though I can clearly see that mourning the passing of things that no one wanted to eat is beyond perverse. But maybe this is the same impulse that encourages us all to keep our old, dull pets and not just shoot them in a bid to upgrade to new and improved ones that can vacuum and sing like Maurice Chevalier while chocolate-dipping the squirrels.
Yet it is also this perverse and roundabout logic that leads me to feel deep and intense things about Manny's Tortas, things that are partisan to the point of being jingoistic, against an enemy that doesn't exist.
Let me explain.
A torta is not a universal constant. To some, a torta is a casserole. To others, a family-sized omelet. It also occupies a rainbow of sandwich forms. As a "burger" in America might be a burger, or a Buffalo-sauce-glazed chicken breast topped with bacon, or a grilled portobello mushroom, a "torta" might be any number of Mexican things served inside a hamburger-bun-like roll--barbecued pork, sliced steak, shredded chicken, or anything at all.
Except I've never heard of them like we have them now, at Manny's Tortas, the new East Lake Street restaurant that opened last month in a snazzy, de Stijl-influenced room full of bright graphics, gray banquettes, and molded plastic chairs that work together to make it look more like a modern art museum's cafeteria than the new after-bar hotspot of south Minneapolis.
There is an actual Manny: Manny Gonzalez, who moved up here to the frigid North from Mexico City some 20 years ago. Gonzalez worked in various restaurants and put in a whopping 10 years in a prominent Minnesota catering kitchen before opening his first place, the Manny's Tortas window in the food court at Mercado Central, the Latin American mall on the corner of East Lake and Bloomington in south Minneapolis. Last month, Manny and his sister Victoria Gonzalez opened the new place, a quick-serve torta restaurant with a beer license and late-night hours, across from the old Town Talk Diner. (Quickly: The place is open till 10 o'clock every night, and till three o'clock in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays. Also, they offer seven kinds of Mexican beer--so, suddenly, there is a place to go on a Friday at midnight for a beer and dinner, at less than $10 a head. Next summer there will even be an outdoor patio.)
But the thing about it that kills me is that the lessons from a Minnesota catering kitchen have been so adeptly absorbed. Instead of being constructed around a simple roll, all of Manny's tortas are served on crisp French bread. Instead of scary sauces, every torta is unified with the same sweet and hot chipotle mayonnaise you may recognize from the television programming of Bobby Flay, or from the little dipping dishes that accompany your favorite plates of calamari. French bread, chipotle mayo, a room so de Stijl it might as well be in Amsterdam--welcome to the Minnesota torta!
At first, I wasn't in love with the things; I was thinking they lacked personality. But after a bunch of visits, the sandwiches have really grown on me. It might have been that after a trio of visits, the staff and I passed through the gringos-are-to-be-treated-gingerly barrier, or it might have been that I started requesting tortas with extra pickled jalapeños (they're better that way), or it might have been simply that I made that necessary junk-food reptile-brain leap from not knowing what to expect to having an expectation fulfilled. Like I said, I dunno. What I can say is that, over time, I have become delighted with and addicted to the things, and I suspect much of south Minneapolis is sure to follow. Especially because they seem to improve after a few minutes in a bag in the car--the flavors and sauce mingle irresistibly. I can also report that the best tortas at Manny's are the vegetarian ($4.95), the Manny's Special ($6.95), and the Cubana ($6.50).
The vegetarian is up there with the best vegetarian indulgences around: French bread is divided into cold and hot halves, the cold side filled with bright-green slices of fresh avocado, sliced tomatoes, onions, lettuce, pickled jalapeños, and the chipotle mayonnaise, the hot side smeared with refried beans and a big pile of sautéed mushrooms, and the two tiers divided by a melting layer of Swiss cheese. Whoa. At $4.95, it almost worries me, as I can so easily visualize late-night disaster: every car in the south metro with a "What if the military had to have a bake sale?" bumper sticker crashing into its political brother. You'll wish your other car were a broom!
The Manny's Special is basically the vegetarian with extra sautéed tomatoes, sautéed onions, a thin, marinated, breaded steak, and a couple of pieces of ham. It's a massively filling, rich, and complex thing, with enough salt and heft to stand up to the fresh salad-like elements. The Cubana contains ham, pork loin, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado, jalapenos, and the chipotle mayonnaise; it's big, sweet, plump, and provocatively lush. I tried pretty much everything else on the menu, and I recommend staying away from the too-plain turkey or chicken tortas. And I thought the chorizo and egg version wasn't as greasy and overblown as I'd like it to have been. My dream is that when the place really gets rolling--and I can't but think there will be lines out the door as soon as word gets out--Manny's will add some more dishes, maybe something fried? Maybe something with salsa? I don't know.
I did find some of Manny's expert catering tricks downright unnerving; like tiramisu that makes you look around for the wedding party, and caesar salad that says, "Oh no, my boss is trying to make me feel better about losing my lunch hour by giving me this free goddamn salad." Sometimes the soup of the day at this really, truly, authentically Mexican restaurant is the really way too-authentically Minnesotan Chicken Wild Rice. Which both horrifies and entrances me. Imagine it: Sometime this winter, snow will be pouring down like the froth of Hiawatha Falls, plows will be scraping up the street, rattling the buildings, making those vibrating noises that sound like the groaning of giant, beached whales. At that moment, you will have the opportunity to shove a little Mexican lime in the neck of a bottle of Pacifica, bring a spoonful of Chicken Wild Rice soup to your lips, and contemplate the specificity of a universe that has led to the only-here, only-now moment of Manny's Tortas.
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