Quick like a turtle
Sacramento, CA 95814
Walking into Tortugas, Ernesto Jimenez’s casual new Midtown sandwich shop next to Zócalo, one can’t help but immediately notice the light fixture: translucent-red illuminated tortoises, dangling on spiraling red cords in the center of the high, narrow room. At first, I thought they were just a cute expression of the sandwich shop’s turtle theme—but the friend I was having lunch with saw them as creepier, as if they were turtles hung in effigy. Once she’d pointed it out, though, I couldn’t help but see them as a little sinister.
There are plenty of other, cuter turtles at Tortugas: a row of them embedded in tiles, marching up the center of the floor, as well as many adorning the walls. But charming though all the little reptiles are, the space is intentionally a touch edgy, with a black and green and red color scheme, cartoonish murals on the walls, and an equally stylized, buxom red female devil perched on the restaurant’s name on the menu cards.
Presumably she is the namesake of the sandwich I ordered, “la diablita de carnitas ahogada.” The restaurant specializes in the Mexican style of sandwich called tortas—the restaurant’s name, of course, is a pun on the sandwich name—and also offers burritos. The menu, however, is limited. You won’t find desserts or many drinks, though in addition to the usual run of soft drinks there are three aguas frescas: horchata, tamarindo and jamaica (hibiscus flower). They’re not particularly distinctive—I would love to see this place offering more freshly made jugos and aguas frescas—and the horchata was too sweet, but they are refreshing on a hot day.
The horchata, sugary or not, was a nice cooling counterpoint to la diablita, which, true to its name, was plenty hot. Its incendiary bright-red dipping sauce appeared to be largely pureed chilies. The big, round sandwiches on crusty, deliciously fresh white rolls are an ever-so-slightly Americanized version of the torta. There’s more lettuce, tomato and mayo than one might expect—though there is also a hefty dose of tasty pickled jalapeños. There are fewer combinations of meats than I’ve seen at other tortas joints, though I suppose you could ask to pile on different meats when you order. (At about $7, the sandwiches here are also a bit pricier than I’ve seen elsewhere, though they’re still an eminently reasonable lunch.) An extremely welcome touch was the huge chunks of perfectly fresh, ripe avocado in the sandwiches.
I ordered my diablita without mayonnaise, but it was still gummy at the edges where bread met sandwich—a function, I think, of the sauciness of the carnitas. The pork had a toasty, savory flavor, but a slightly mushy texture. Dipping the sandwich in the hot sauce, however, covered a multitude of textural sins and gave it a fiery complexity. I wished I’d had some tortilla chips to dip in that salsa. Each order comes with a bag of Lay’s potato chips. They’re salty and crisp enough, and I am by no means opposed to packaged potato chips, but some good, thick-cut, fresh tortilla chips would really add a nice touch to these sandwiches.
My friend, a vegetarian, ordered the torta with cheese. Those who don’t eat meat should be warned that there are few choices for them here, but the cheese torta was tasty, with a hefty slice of salty, crumbly Mexican cheese playing off nicely against those fresh chunks of buttery avocado. That, however, was “take two” of the sandwich: The kitchen initially sent her sandwich out piled high with ham in addition to the cheese. The server behind the cash register was quick to rectify the error and produce a fresh sandwich.
I also tried a chile-verde burrito; the menu offers a list of burritos, as well as a taco salad. The burrito had a nice flavor and plenty of heft; the generous wedges of avocado reappeared here. But the black beans were ever so slightly al dente, and I felt it skimped just a bit on the pork chile verde. What there was of it was tasty, with subtle spiciness if little sauce, but large swaths of burrito were mostly rice, plus some beans.
Tortugas is not a place for a leisurely sit-down meal; it’s literally a lunch counter (the walls are lined with high counters and stools for those who wish to eat in). Since it’s open late on weekends, it would also make a great refueling stop in the middle of a night out. Before I went, I’d heard rumors that the tortas were a little bland. Well, a lot of tortas are, at least to start off with; you have to add hot sauce to give them a kick. Tortugas makes that easy enough, and their fresh, filling tortas make an appealing addition to Midtown’s lineup of quick fare.