Don't believe anyone who says he or she knows the best torta at Rocky's Tacos. The daunting menu lists over 70 options, each only slightly different from the other. All I do know is that whichever one you choose will be built on a fresh and crisp loaf of bread, nearly the size of your forearm. Also, the crazier and more abundant the sandwich sounds, the better it will probably be. Case in point: The Pablo Barrera, named for a Mexican football player, comes stacked with crispy breaded pork, tender grilled hot dogs (yes, hot dogs), smoky chipotle chiles, cheese, lettuce, refried beans and avocado. I'm sure I left something out. All of this can be had for $6.25. If, for some crazy reason, you wish the sandwich were bigger, know that you can order a gigante version for $9.25.
La Fabulosa at Dona Torta
You don't go to Dona Torta for petite and polite sandwiches. No, you go to grab a torta that's a foot long and crammed with a borderline irresponsible number of components. For example, La Fabulosa combines breaded steak, shredded pork, ham, eggs and, just for fun, lots of grilled hot dogs. That's not to mention shredded Chihuahua cheese and lettuce, tomato and onions. Obviously, it's over the top, but it all somehow tastes great too. The saltiness of the multiple meats is balanced by the fresh vegetables, while the crunchy bread never collapses under the weight. And if you find it necessary to finish the whole thing, a smattering of fries is there waiting for you underneath. $7.75.
German torta at Torta Haus
This torta is not as outlandish as it sounds. Sure, it's stuffed with quintessentially German ingredients like mustard and sauerkraut, but it's also full of components you'd find at any reputable torta purveyor, like milanesa. Mexican tortas often include pork that's pounded thin, breaded and then fried; though usually it's called milanesa, the menu here labels it wiener schnitzel. And as you've noticed from this article, adding grilled sausages is so commonplace that it's almost routine. Torta Haus also does a fantastic job of toasting the rolls, leaving them slightly crisp on the exterior, while soft and steamy within. $10.99.
Steak pambazo at El Habanero
A pambazo is a distinct Mexican sandwich where the bread has been dunked in a red chile sauce. The pambazo is griddled after being dunked in the sauce. So instead of being soaked and soggy, the result is a crunchy dark red exterior, with every bite saturated with the slight heat and smokiness of red chiles. El Habanero offers the traditional chorizo filling, though juicy steak is more popular. While you could don surgical gloves and pick this messy guy up, I'd suggest the far more proper method of attacking it with a knife and fork. $7.49.
3300 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-227-9225
Milanesa torta at Jarabe
While gargantuan overstuffed tortas can be serious fun, there is an argument to be made for tortas that are compact and svelte. Jarabe's milanesa torta is a master class in keeping those layers as thin as possible. Scraped of much of its soft doughy innards, the top section of the roll can't be more than ½-inch thick, yet it still maintains a pleasant crispness. Though the breaded pork cutlets look as if they've been flattened under a steamroller, they remain juicy and crunchy. Other details stick out. The cheese is fully melted, oozing when you bite in. And as in good burger construction, the shredded lettuce and tomato are placed on the bottom, so that juices from toppings don't saturate the bottom bun, causing collapse. $7.
Torta Cubana at El Carrito
Sure, El Carrito serves tortas with just one kind of meat, but what you really want is the torta Cubana. As the name suggests, it's sort of a riff on a Cuban sandwich, complete with ham, roasted pork and cheese. Then things get weird. How else to explain the addition of hot dogs and grilled pineapple? After a quick look, you'll probably want to start protesting El Carrito for desecrating both Cuban sandwiches and Mexican tortas, but then you'll take a bite. Somehow the restaurant manages to ingeniously combine the contents into a harmonious whole, albeit one that's aggressively oversized and full of meat. The nicely toasted bread helps keep all the components in check. $10.99.
Cubana torta at Tortas Frontera
As important as Xoco's tortas are, it's hard to undersell the importance of Tortas Frontera, which somehow replicated the quality and deliciousness of Xoco's tortas in an airport food court. All of a sudden, you didn't have to force yourself to choose between greasy burgers or greasy pizza when stuck at O'Hare. Instead, you could have a crusty torta filled with top-quality ingredients. You really can't go wrong here, though the Cubana torta, which comes stuffed with smoked pork, bacon, chipotle and cheese, is an awfully good place to start. $12.50.
Barbacoa torta at 5 Rabanitos
Chef Alfonso Sotelo spent 19 years working in restaurants owned by Rick Bayless, including a few years at Xoco. It makes sense then that the tortas at Sotelo's very own restaurant showcase many of the hallmarks that make Xoco's so great. The bread is crackly around the edges but still tender enough in the middle to soak up the juices from the tender barbacoa meat stuffed in the middle. The green strips you see aren't roasted chiles, but the sliced paddle of a prickly pear cactus. The de-spiked vegetable has a fascinating sourness to it, which balances nicely with the heavy beef. $9.
Food writer and authority Michael Pollan is well-known for his simple diet advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” For our daily gallery during our month of Craving: Smart Eating, the Food & Dining team is avoiding diet fads and trends, opting instead to err on the side of Pollan's easy-to-follow wisdom. Plant-based cooking avoids the pressure of more dogmatic restrictions and focuses on enhancing the flavors of the vegetables. As such, this month, vegetables are the hero, not the sidekick. — Joseph Hernandez