Torta-Landia 

The Best Thing Isn't the Sliced Bread

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I DON'T WORSHIP at the altar of the authentic; if it isn't what the kitchen is going for, I'm not going to fault a restaurant for choosing not to replicate a style of cooking precisely. Maybe it's the exception, but I've had plenty of enjoyable "ethnic" food that was clearly adapted for the tastes of white, middle-class, American rubes, and I've had bona fide traditional ethnic food that tastes like bona fide traditional dog shit.

What matters more, to me, is a thoughtful concept and strong execution. When I visited Torta-Landia, a new Mexican restaurant in the Foster/Powell neighborhood, I didn't have expectations of a meal straight from Jalisco (especially considering that the owners' other restaurant, Mi Famiglia, is a wood oven pizzeria). While there's a lot going for it, Torta-Landia still has some distance to cover. The keystone to any good torta—and the primary difference between it and many Mexican standards of its ilk—is the fact that it's served on bread, sometimes bolillo (a kind of variation of a baguette), but often telera, a rounder, softer loaf. Torta-Landia uses something more akin to the latter. And unfortunately, here, it's the weakest aspect of the sandwich. The bread lacks any flavor, and though telera often has a sticky dough, this one's almost gummy, which inspired me to give up and eat the filling with a fork.

I'm all for house-made ingredients, especially in cases where you can't find a better option, but sometimes baking should be left to the bakers (if authenticity isn't the focus here—and clearly it isn't—I might suggest An Xuyen down the street). I don't mean to harp on the negative, but if Torta-Landia could get the bread locked in, they would keep me coming back.

Tortas, depending on your desired filling, go for $7 to $8. While the proteins themselves toe the party line—al pastor, carnitas, carne asada, pollo verde, pescado, chorizo, or grilled vegetables—the rest of the sandwich diverges a bit from typical taco-stand fare. All tortas are dressed with tequila-chili aioli and cilantro-lime crema, and my favorite so far, the al pastor, comes with a sweet onion-pineapple relish, tomato, queso fresco, avocado salsa, and spring greens (which, again, felt like an odd and not particularly welcome choice). I was a bit disappointed that the sandwiches featured neither beans nor jalapeños, as my favorite tortas do, but I appreciate Torta-Landia's balance of flavors and focus on bright, fresh ingredients.

Tacos—the other pillar of the menu—are a little more filling than I've grown accustomed to, certainly bigger than Por Que No's or those from most food trucks. They're made with excellent, albeit greasy, house-made corn tortillas (constructive criticism: use two tortillas per taco... they tend to break). You can choose from the same lineup of meats (most of which are $2 apiece) topped with cilantro, onion, queso fresco, and salsa. One that diverges from the pack, and my particular favorite, was the fried rockfish ($3). It's lightly battered and served with shredded cabbage (thankfully they didn't "upgrade" to spring greens), queso fresco, mango salsa, avocado, and that cilantro-lime crema. During happy hour (daily 9 pm to close), tacos are two for the price of one.

The side dishes are hit and miss. I wasn't wild about the borracho beans ($2)—seasoned pinto beans stewed in beer and tequila—but I was big fan of both the roasted corn with chili seasoning and queso fresco ($3), and the bocadillos ($3), which are kind of a mashed potato fritter.

The space is more inviting than I expected when I pulled off SE Foster. The bigger of the two rooms (and the one in which I'll always choose to sit), opens to the street by way of a large garage door. It accommodates a dozen or so long tables made from roughly 50 percent wood and 50 percent lacquer. There are nine beer taps (mostly local micros, with a couple Mexican imports thrown in for good measure) and a full bar, with a focus on margaritas ($6-9). We tried the standard house version, which tasted more or less like a standard house margarita, and the jalapeño, which I enjoyed tremendously; it had a kick to it for sure, but it wasn't the kind of drink you needed another beverage to offset.

Like I said, there's plenty to enjoy; Torta-Landia is a welcome addition to the Foster/Powell area, but needs some fine tuning if it's going to draw a crowd from outside the neighborhood. If they start with the bread, they'll certainly draw me back.

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