Local San Antonians and Mexican nationals alike are flocking to the small building on 623 Urban Loop on the near-Westside to try authentic tortas ahogadas, or “drowned sandwiches” that hail from Guadalajara, a city located in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
RO-HO Pork & Bread, captained by chef Jorge Rojo, is attached to Sanitary Tortilla, a local company that has been distributing nixtamalized products such as tortillas and tortilla chips to San Antonio restaurants for 91 years. RO-HO also serves tacos, tamales, and other items, but the star of the menu is the infamous torta ahogada.
“We come here because it’s delicious,” Rafael Nicolas, a customer from Monterrey, Mexico, who frequents the restaurant with his wife and two daughters, said in Spanish. “The seasoning of the torta is very similar to the one in Guadalajara. Es el único lugar – it’s the only place – that comes close to the real deal.”
The torta ahogada dish is made with birote, a thick, crunchy bread with a soft interior, which is specific to the Jalisco region. The dish features the word “drowned” in its name because the sandwich is submerged in a sauce made of tomato and chile de árbol. The spiciness of the sauce depends on the establishment, but patrons who like it spicy can usually ask for an even hotter sauce to pour on their torta on the side. The sliced-open bread is stuffed with beans and pork carnitas and served with onions, radishes, green cabbage, and a lime wedge.
A rare dish in many parts of the United States, word has spread fast, and many Mexican nationals travel long distances to get a taste of chef Rojo's tortas.
“Seeing how people (from) as far away (as) Austin, San Marcos, Houston, and Dallas drive all the way here to eat a torta – at first I thought they were joking,” Rojo said. “But when I saw them get out of the car time and time again and stretch out, I said, ‘Wow, they are coming from that far.’”
The chef never imagined just how much his dish would take off, but the “nostalgic market” – as he calls it – is growing leaps and bounds, as many Mexicans look for that “taste of home” while they live abroad.
Before San Antonio
Rojo was born in Argentina but raised in Guadalajara, where he worked as a lawyer. After meeting his wife, Rojo moved to León, Guanajuato, and took a birotero – a baker who specializes in birote bread – with him to start a business there.
“I learned all about bread from him,” Rojo said. “I opened a panadería but then we closed it. I also built my own tortilla machine.”
Rojo also started a torta ahogada business in León, which still operates, but then moved to Cuernavaca with his family. Soon after, he set his eyes on San Antonio.
“The violence got very bad, so we left Cuernavaca for a little bit (and came to San Antonio), but that little bit turned out to be five years,” Rojo said. “Mainly I came to study culinary arts while the violence subsided.”
Rojo studied at St. Philip’s College, and his original plan was to make birote and distribute it to Mexican restaurants in the city. He visited several restaurants in San Antonio that had the word “Jalisco” or “Guadalajara” in their name, but soon learned that most of them didn’t carry the traditional birote bread or even know what it was. His offers to sell them birote were declined as none of the restaurants showed interest in incorporating the bread into their menu.
Rojo realized that some restaurants name their establishments after certain cities in Mexico, but don’t really follow through when it comes to providing authentic dishes specific to that region.
“After I finished at St. Philip’s, Luis Garcia, the owner of Sanitary Tortilla, invited me to undertake a project at the tortilla factory’s small store,” Rojo said.
It was in that moment that Rojo agreed and decided to remodel the space – building the tables and painting art on the walls himself – and start selling tortas. He wanted to see if there was anybody out there who would appreciate the traditional dish, he said.
“And gracias a dios,” Rojo said, “I realized that there are people here that do look for the torta ahogadas and the tacos like over there.”
A Round Dish
When I asked the chef to describe the dish to someone who has never tried it before, he explained that the torta ahogada dish is considered a “round dish” in culinary terms – a meal that includes four pivotal taste components: acidity, sweetness, saltiness, and fat.
“The torta ahogada has the sweetness in the tomato sauce, the salt in the meat and other elements, the fat from the meat, and the acidity from the lime,” Rojo said. “This makes it a complete dish. But the torta ahogada goes beyond, because it has the spiciness, the texture of the bread, and the fiesta that is eating the torta, which is something you enjoy as you discover how to eat it.”
Rojo said first-timers often stare at the dish without knowing what to do at first, and ask him how to eat it. He said he laughs and tells them the dish is from the land of tequila and mariachis, and that a torta is a typical hangover remedy after a long night out.
“When I explain how to eat it, I usually tell them to use one hand for the torta, and keep the other free for the soft drink, the napkin, or the spoon,” he said. “Once they are familiarized, they can enjoy the torta. Some people sprinkle lime, others wait until the bread becomes a little soggy – everyone develops their own way to eat it, and that’s a very personal process.”
Although Rojo prides himself on the fact that all the ingredients that go inside the torta are homemade, he admits that it’s really the birote bread – which he also makes from scratch – that makes the dish so special.
“Birote is a type of bread that is very ancient and traditional to Guadalajara,” Rojo said. “It is said that it started in Guadalajara because when Benito Juárez killed Maximilian of Habsburg – the emperor of Mexico – his baker then went to live in Guadalajara and started this ‘school’ of making birote, which persists to this day. These are very ancient processes that you can’t do through the current system or process of commercial and modern baking we have today. With this bread, you have to take care of it for several days and prepare it a very specific way.”
When asked more about that “specific way” of making or preparing the mysterious bread, Rojo hesitated.
“That’s a secret,” he said. “The panaderos in Guadalajara would kill me if I told you.”
Rojo likes to build things like food machines and bicycles – he built a machine that slices all the birotes at once and is currently working on a bike made of wood and leather to ride around the city. But the chef also has an artistic side. Many of the paintings and art pieces that hang inside the restaurant are made by Rojo himself.
“I’m trying to do socially conscious art about Mexico right now,” he said. “Because skeletons of Frida Kahlo and sarapes … enough with that. I want people to know the reality of what is happening in Mexico, such as events like Ayotzinapa,” Rojo said, referring to the disappearance of 43 students after a protest in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. “I’m doing a painting right now that shows the fusion of the indigenous people with the Spaniards, which is something in the exterior that a lot of people still don’t digest – if they don’t see you are brown-skinned, they don’t think you are Mexican.”
Despite the fact that several of his customers from the suburbs don't frequent RO-HO as much as they'd like because of its downtown location, Rojo said nostalgia and antojo always end up winning. And even though Rojo admits it’s hard to introduce a new dish to parts of a population that haven’t had it before, he’s excited about the future.
“I’ve started to notice a lot of people who aren’t from here, who come to San Antonio for business trips, and come (for) the tortas,” Rojo said. “And that feels awesome, because it becomes a ‘must’ for them when they visit San Antonio. It’s not something that everyone eats here like in Guadalajara. Here the equivalent of that is barbecue, but little by little we are introducing (tortas to people).”
The only time Rojo ever closed his restaurant since he opened a year and a half ago, was for two weeks last Christmas.
“After I reopened, I noticed that a lot of people who came had visited Guadalajara over the holidays, and they began telling me that my tortas were so much better than the ones they had over there,” Rojo said. “Then the next day another person would come and say that, and another one, and another one ... so I began to add a tally on the wall every time somebody told me that.”
Even some Guadalajara natives have told Rojo the same thing.
“That’s the best compliment I can get,” Rojo said, smiling.
To learn more about RO-HO Pork & Bread, click here. The restaurant is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11 a.m to 4 p.m.
Top image: A torta ahogada, meaning "drowned sandwich," is typical dish from Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by Anh-Viet Dinh.