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He’s Deathly Allergic to Chiles, So Obviously He Makes L.A.’s Spiciest Tortas Ahogadas

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hat is the secret behind an excellent torta ahogada? 

Ask any Tapatío, the term given to someone born and raised in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and they will most likely tell you one of two things: The birote salado, a crusty and sourdough-based baguette-like bread roll endemic only to this region that was introduced by France’s second failed attempt to occupy Mexico in the 1860s. 

Or, it’s the electrically spicy, fiery salsa made from the yahualica “chile de árbol,” also endearingly called “colas de rata” chile, that were recently granted the esteemed denomination of origin protection. (The same protection granted to Champagne.)      

For Miguel Lara, a Tapatío away from home in Bell and head Torta Maker of the pop-up Tortas El Águila, the secret of a great torta ahogada lies in the latter. “The chile is what provides all the flavor in the salsa, its heat is what makes it special,” Lara tells L.A. Taco. 

A torta ahogada from Tortas El Águila. Photo by Javier Cabral

Since 1980, when Lara left his colonia of Oblatos in Guadalajara to move to the barrios of Los Angeles, recreating tortas ahogadas in the US has been a way for him and his family to stay connected to their Jalisco roots. “We knew it was a special gathering when tortas were involved,” says Natalie, his middle daughter of five children. “Ever since I was six years old, my best memories have been of me looking around with tears running down my eyes because his salsa was so spicy.” But in 2013, life as Miguel knew it changed in an instant over a meal of mariscos, when his throat started to close up and he choked. 

He developed a deathly allergy to chiles.  

“It’s been hard for him and he tries to say ‘nada más un poquito!’” Natalie shares with L.A. Taco. “Until this last December, while he was eating a Torta and his ‘poquito’ was too much...his throat started to close up.” The family had to use the epi-pen on him.

The resulting torta ahogada born out of this resilience and passion is perhaps the most Guadalajara-like torta ahogada in Los Angeles.

“I could see it in his face how bummed out he gets when we all are eating the spicy stuff and he can’t,” Natalie continues. Cooking has helped him cope with this identity challenging allergy. Being the resilient Tapatío that he is, Miguel found ways of working around this new allergy. Wearing latex gloves, a facemask, and operating from decades of flavor memory ingrained into his DNA, he still makes his chile de árbol salsa. “Though it saddens him to not eat it, he gets tremendous joy watching us and other folks enjoy his food and salsa,” Natalie adds.

Photo via Tortas El Águila

In September of last year, after their extended family and close friends kept on insisting on it, Natalie and her father started selling Miguel’s sandwiches and called the pop-up Tortas El Águila. Named after his nickname earned in the streets of Oblatos for being a hell of a goaltender. 

Against the odds set by his immune system, the father and daughter team started to build up momentum in L.A.’s independently owned craft brewery circuit. Because what better drink in a city populated by 4.9 Million Latinx residents to extinguish a mouth on fire than fresh, ice-cold craft beer?      

Even though Miguel has been making tortas ahogadas for 40 years, he still talks about the journey to perfecting it.

When the COVID-19 restrictions hit, the father and daughter team halted their operation, until a few weeks ago when they started offering their tortas ahogadas for either pick-up or delivery. Their small but quickly growing base of regulars heeded the call and they are now offering it on a more regular basis on weekends. Even though Miguel has been making tortas ahogadas for 40 years, he still talks about the journey to perfecting it. A few months ago, he started learning the art of carnitas so he can have more control over the condimento level of the carnitas he stuffs his tortas with. 

Natalie and her father, Miguel. Photo via Tortas El Águila

The resulting torta ahogada born out of this resilience and passion is perhaps the most Guadalajara-like torta ahogada in Los Angeles. This is partially due to the birote salado that he sources from La Princesita panaderia in Cudahy. It maintains that birote salado-like crunch and a hint of the sourdough flavor you find in Jalisco. Miguel manages to get an almost impossible amount of carnitas in the roll, and the thin salsa de chile de árbol is as fiery as a human can handle. Though there is also enough of the thin tomato salsa without any chile to dilute it to your comfort level. 

When asked how it is like to work with his daughter, the middle child of five, Miguel responds: “De Maravilla, ella es mis dos brazos.” 

The goal for the Laras is for Natalie to learn the ins and outs of tortas ahogadas from her father before he returns to Guadalajara to retire in a couple of years. His day job is doing pool maintenance and hers is working as a manager for a MAC store, though she has been furloughed. Their pop-up business is a complete family affair, Natalie's mom, brother, and three other sisters help make the tortas and deliver them. Down the line, Natalie hopes to have a small trailer she can hook onto her car to be able to work in and participate in food festivals. From the looks, flavor, and texture of their tortas as they stand in June 2020, she is well on her way to these goals. 

When asked how it is like to work with his daughter, the middle child of five, Miguel responds: “De Maravilla, ella es mis dos brazos.” 

To find out when Tortas El Águila is taking orders again, slide into their DMs on Instagram. 

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