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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Improving on a Tucson Original

So, on lunch break with my mother a few weeks back, we went to the Time Market. For those of you who haven’t been, it’s a real Tucson institution and absolutely essential if you visit. For a place as small as it is, it’s got an excellent variety of cheese, chocolate, artisanal cooking oils and the like, an awesome selection of beverages, both alcoholic and soft (Virgil’s Root Beer—mmm), more kinds of interesting chips than you could shake a stick at, as well as some excellent bread they bring in from a local bakery, and some of the best tortillas in town (though they go very quickly). Besides all this, they’ve got a brick oven that turns out great (and cheap) pizza, and the subject of the rest of today’s column—a deli counter with a large and unique selection of sandwiches.

When I’ve gone to lunch there by myself, I’ve mainly gotten the pizza; when I have had sandwiches there, it’s mostly been in the company of my stepmother, who tends to complain when I order something weird, so to placate her I’ve stuck for the most part to the more conventional offerings—tuna salad etc.—which were unfailingly quite good. But each time I’ve gone in, my eye has strayed to one fascinating item: the Green Gringo. This hot sandwich, a mad-scientist melding of American and Mexican tradition, advertises shredded chicken and a green corn tamale on sourdough bread, along with salsa, green olives, and cheddar cheese. And this time, I was going to have it.

We ordered, I grabbed a Mexican grapefruit soda from the cooler, and soon the sandwich arrived. The first thing I noticed was that it had a soft, buttery looking roll instead of the sourdough—so much the better really. I took a picture, picked up the sandwich, took a bite and…

Well, it wasn’t bad. Actually, at moments it was pretty good—chicken and salsa on good bread will never be a bad combination, and where there were olives they balanced very interestingly with the tamale and the bread. I could certainly see where the idea came from. But the sandwich overall suffered from a few big problems. Firstly, there just wasn’t enough flavor: the salsa was pretty good, but it was a thin, mild pico de gallo and there wasn’t enough of it, the olives were tasty but sparse, the cheddar cheese was simply a misstep—maybe I’m in the minority, but I think Mexican cheeses play far better with Mexican food then the brassiness of a sharp cheddar—and the chicken, while juicy enough, wasn’t all that flavorful. Which brings us to problem number two—if you’re going to build a sandwich around a tamale, it ought to be a better tamale than this one. It was all dry crumbly masa texture—really good green corn tamales are soft and creamy—and it had virtually no flavor, getting completely lost in the sandwich that was supposed to feature it.

None of this should be taken as a knock on the Time Market, a truly fantastic place—it’s just always disappointing when food you’re looking forward to doesn’t measure up to expectations . But, I thought, the idea surely was sound. It just needs improving…and that is something I can do.

The guiding principle I took with this re-imagining was that it was the gringo part of the sandwich that was causing the problem; to improve it, I needed to make it more Mexican, and then meant conceptualizing it not as a deli sandwich with a few Mexican ingredients, but as a torta. These outstanding Mexican sandwiches that are a staple of causal Mexican restaurants all over the southwest. These sandwiches are full of flavor; usually based around well-seasoned Mexican meats like carnitas and carne asada, they are then topped with soft, salty Mexican cheeses like Oxaca, Panela, and Asadero, guacamole or avocado slices, and salsas of various descriptions. In fact, I thought my iteration needed a new name along these lines, so I’ve christened it the Verde Sabroso torta.

For my torta, I started by getting the right kind of bread: authentic bolillo rolls from El Rio Bakery. About the size of a large French roll, these are soft and buttery on the inside and brown and lightly crusty on the outside. At Food City, I picked up the makings for guacamole, some panela cheese, and some green salsa (more on that later). Finally, I swung by Larua’s, a restaurant on Broadway that sells, by the dozen, what are generally regarded to be the best green corn tamales in town. There’s are creamy, mildly sweet, with thick strips of roasted green chile inside—even if I’d made no other changes, their tamale would have made a world of difference.

As for the chicken, I decided that it needed an infusion of flavor and texture as well, and improvised a simple recipe for what were basically easy, lard-free chicken carnitas. I l immered pieces of shredded roast chicken (in a hurry, I used a plain grocery store rotisserie and it turned out just fine) in green salsa for an hour and then dropped into a very hot, lightly oiled pan and left to cook until the sauce had cooked off and the chicken had become slightly crisp.

With the assistance of my intrepid friend Zoe, I cooked and assembled the ingredients: tamale, chicken carnitas, homemade guacamole, chopped green olives and gently melted cheese on a buttered and grilled bolillo. Was it practical for somewhere like the Time Market to serve? Probably not—for a dinner it’s quick, but the assembly’s too laborious for that kind of setup. But it was moist, full of flavor, and gave the tamale and chicken the starring roles they deserved. In a sit-down restaurant or on a dinner table, I think it’d please the crowd.

Verde Sabroso Torta (includes recipes for guacamole and easy chicken carnitas)
Serves 2

2 long bolillo rolls or large French sub rolls.
2 green corn tamales
¼ cup any soft, white Mexican cheese, crumbled.
¼ green olives, pitted and chopped
Chicken Carnitas:
1 large cooked chicken breast, shredded
~ 8-12 ounces green salsa
Salt, to taste
2 medium avocados, soft and ripe but not brown, cut into small pieces
½ large tomato, firm, cut into small chunks
1-2 jalapenos, minced fine (remove some or all of interior flesh and seeds, depending on heat tolerance)
½ medium white onion
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Salt, to taste

1. Place shredded chicken into bowl or glass dish and cover with salsa. If possible, let stand 1 hour (if you’re rushed, 30 mins. will be fine)
2. Add avacados, jalapeno, and lime juice to bowl and mash until no individual pieces of avocado are visible. Add tomatoes, onions, zest and mash again briefly to combine. Season with salt to taste
3. To a large frying pan, add just enough oil to coat the bottom and heat to high. With tongs, add chicken to pan. Cook ~4 minutes on high, moving and turning chicken, until sauce has mostly bubbled off, then reduce heat to medium and let stand, stirring occasionally.
4. Slice bolillos in half lengthwise, and butter both sides. Place on hot skillet, inside faces down.
5. Warm tamales in steamer (if from frozen) or in microwave in sealed lgass container (if from cold)
6. When chicken pieces begin to brown and crisp, turn off heat—the residual heat will finish them
7. When bolilios are golden brown on the inside, turn over and place outside faces down on grill. Sprinkle cheese on inside faces and allow to melt.
8. Assemble sandwiches: place a green corn tamale on the bottom half of a bolillo, and place chicken on top of that. Spoon a few dollops of guacamole on top of the chicken, sprinkle olives on guacamole, and put the top half of the bolillo on top
9. Dig in--but you'll need a knife and fork if you don't want to get messy.

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  1. Well done, my dear friend. :D

  2. Is there a Tucson edition of "Sandwiches You Will Like"? Because there should be, and this should be in it. It's a keeper!

  3. I would need to eat this sandwich in the bathtub - but who cares! Sounds great.


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