The new torta paradigm
Shoehorned into a former Hawaiian barbecue place, near where Monterey Park runs smack into East L.A., Cook’s is a new paradigm of an Eastside restaurant, a spare, modern tortas café, with the chalkboard menu, the sleek pastries and the Illy espresso much more common in Westside coffeehouses than in elbow-in-the-salsa taquerías. There are house-made aguas frescas here, fresh juice-based drinks and infusions, notably an agua of watermelon, lime and mint. Side dishes include chunky new-potato salad and a Caprese made with Mexican queso fresco instead of mozzarella cheese. The shortlist of desserts features “great-great-grandmother’s corn cake,” which shares some of the flavors of the millet muffins Alice Waters makes at Café Fanny up in Berkeley. But Cook’s revolves around its updated tortas, made with crisp, dense bread baked at the café and featuring such oddball fillings as grilled vegetables with pesto, smoked salmon with cream cheese, and salt cod with roasted peppers, as well as the more traditional tortas made with the breaded, fried beef called milanesa; with delicate beef tongue and jalapeños; or an almost classic pambazo with chorizo and potatoes. The fad at Mexican lunch counters these days is for the torta ahogada, a Guadalajara-style torta drowned in chile sauce, and Cook’s version is almost surreally spicy, stuffed with heroic quantities of roasted pork and painted on both sides with a vivid red sauce. I’ll take the manly Cook’s ahogada over the usual sogged-out takeout models every time.
It’s a colonial classic of the Mexican canon, but the torta is stuck in an underappreciated rut, the bastard brother of the burrito that’s often forgotten next to its wrapped-up relative. At Cook’s Tortas, however, the torta finally achieves some ascendancy – Cook’s doesn’t just fill a simple sandwich niche, it gives the torta a proper place to dominate every meal.
Part of that supremacy comes from the restaurant’s location, a smart space in Monterey Park that’s just a skipped lit class away from East L.A. College. So it’s not surprising that Cook’s (its name an homage to Captain Cook’s discovery of the Sandwich Islands, not a declarative statement of the kitchen’s purpose) piles them in during the afternoon, assembling tortas with a speed fit to feed the lunching horde.
It’s a nice place to spend a meal, too, the mint-green walls and shelf-mounted iPod providing just enough of a break from the crawl along Atlantic Boulevard. But the most prominent pieces of the restaurant’s innards are its two floor-to-ceiling chalkboards. The tortas change every day at Cook’s, so those blackboards make the perfect menu, an easily updatable list that usually numbers in the dozens.
Aside from its variety, Cook’s stakes its sandwich fame on its house-made bread – soft, rustic rolls that hold up far better than the basic bolillo. But that fresh-baked bread also changes the character of the tortas, complicating some sandwiches with a ciabatta-like flavor that can add an unnecessarily European edge.
But by and large, that bread is a big benefit. And it’s most clear with the torta ahogada, the famously drowned sandwich served swimming in chile sauce. The torta ahogada at Cook’s isn’t as spicy as other incarnations, but it’s plenty satisfying, trading some of that screaming spice for terrifically tender carnitas. It’s the bread that stands out with the ahogada, though, as the chile sauce can turn lesser rolls into mushy messes that eat like waterlogged crackers. Here, however, the bread is resilient – porous enough to soak up the sauce, sturdy enough to hold up to hand-held eating.
Those looking for cleaner choices should order the mojito torta, a Latin-layered sandwich of roasted pork, garlic mojo, and slow-cooked onions. And equally worthwhile are the milanesa (breaded steak, tomato, jalapeno and mayo) and bacalao (Spanish-style cod, roasted peppers, garlic, and olive oil).
But as much as the place works to refine the sandwich standards (try the Zacatecas when it’s on the menu – dry-cured chorizo seco, avocado, tomato, onions, and salsa), it also rides a new wave of tortas. Cook’s, after all, serves everything from a smoked salmon torta to a grilled veggie version of zucchini, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, tomato, and more of that garlic mojo.
If those are the kinds of tortas you’re after, order the California, a stacked sandwich of grilled chicken, avocado, tomato cream, salsa, lettuce, and fried sage. They’re familiar flavors, but the California torta combines them with unforeseen ease – every inch of the sandwich provides the most balanced bites.
Along with every torta comes a small side, things like a coarse potato salad and cole slaw. Most don’t stand out, but it’s the tortas you’re here for. And to wash those down, there are excellent aguas frescas (think watermelon with mint and lime) and obligatory bottles of Mexican Coke.
To make the most complete meal, grab some dessert on the way out. Sometimes Cook’s serves sweet corn cakes, other times simple almond cookies. If you’re lucky, the restaurant will be baking its Mexican chocolate chip cookies, which are near to pie-sized dimensions. Take one to go and you can feed your entire car – the semisweet, cinnamon-shocked cookies can stuff at least three. Then, it’s back to class. Or work. Or home. But, eventually, it’s always back to Cook’s Tortas.