In the middle of the Lincoln district, a tiny taco truck serves some of the best Mexican eats in Tacoma. I’ve always found it curious that one of the city’s finest Mexican restaurants is not only on wheels, but it’s also squarely in the city’s Vietnamese eating district. In a neighborhood brimming with pho and banh mi, La Fondita has owned the block on tacos, tortas and burritos. That was until three or four months ago when Zocalo, a bakery and torta shop, opened at the corner of South 38th and South G Streets directly across from La Fondita.
While La Fondita specializes in street style Mexican eats, I’d consider the torta one of its specialties, or at least La Fondita makes a really spectacular version. And at Zocalo, tortas clearly are a specialty. Three menu pages are filled with torta choices.
If you’ve never had a torta, they’re portable Mexican sandwiches. A typical torta is made on a squishy six-inch round roll and stuffed with your choice of marinated, grilled or roasted meats (pork, chicken, steak, etc.), jalapenos, sprigs of cilantro, crisp veggies, avocados and a smear of mayo. For my torta tastes, La Fondita’s always has been superior to any other taco truck in town that I’ve tried, let alone sit-down restaurant.
With the two restaurants vying for dining dollars mere steps from one another, I thought it was time to wage an eating battle to see if La Fondita would remain the victor of a torta smackdown.
Taqueria La Fondita
Where: Gravel lot at South 38th and South G streets
If you’re going to wage a torta battle, you really should make it a carnitas torta. Carnitas meat is pure porky goodness – roasted pork shoulder fried crispy at the end of the cooking process. If it’s any good, it will taste of citrus and earthy spices, and will be spiked with chile. It will have just enough fat to be juicy, but will taste crispy around the edges. And that’s exactly how La Fondita makes its carnitas.
The carnitas torta ($4.99 plus an upcharge for avocado) I ordered this week was just as it always is at La Fondita: a fluffy roll with surprisingly sturdy texture for as soft as it tastes. The sandwich roll was smeared with mayo and loaded with thick-cut tomato slices, a few shards of onions, pickled jalapenos, sprigs of fresh cilantro, shredded iceberg lettuce, meaty slices of not-too-ripe avocado and a juicy layer of crispy fried carnitas punctuated with lime and fragrant with garlic and chiles. The sandwich was a flavor bomb, as well as three-napkin adventure. I loved that as I was standing there waiting for my sandwich, I could hear the cling-clang of the spatula hitting the grill as the cook griddled my carnitas to order. That sandwich was seriously good eating.
The atmosphere at La Fondita is pure mobile food chic. Driving through the parking lot may unintentionally turn your car into a moon rover (read: beware of giant pot holes). It’s best to park on the street and risk it on foot through the lot. A covered area offers minimal seating, but be prepared to get your feet wet from standing water when it’s pouring rain. Fancy, it’s not.
Zocalo Bakery and Torta Shop
Where: 701 S. 38th St., Tacoma
Walking through the door at Zocalo, you’ll first be hit with the fragrant smell of yeasty baked goods. Sweet pastries, cookies, breads and other desserts fill display cases on one side of the shop. The other side is tables and chairs and a kitchen for making tortas. The smell was so inviting, I wanted to sit for a bit, and the tables and chairs were a lot more dry and the shop exceptionally more warm than the al fresco La Fondita truck across the street (score one for Zocalo)
Three pages of torta choices ranged from the plain ol’ carnitas or chicken all the way to a Cuban spin on a torta, and even something called a Deliciosa with steak, ham AND bacon (meat trifecta? I think so). Several of the tortas came with breaded steak cutlets. I’ll be back to try those. Most of the sandwiches were in the $7 range.
I wanted to keep my torta smackdown apples-apples, so I ordered the carnitas sandwich ($5.99). The man who took my order disappeared into the back kitchen and I heard him clink-clanking the carnitas on a grill. A few minutes later, he emerged with a large sandwich wrapped in paper, then in plastic. He also handed me a small paper bag. Inside were a dozen paper-thin slices of fried potatoes. House-made potato chips? I asked. “Yes,” he said. They were crispy, delicious and lightly salted.
The sandwich itself was good, but not as delicious as La Fondita’s version. The pork was nicely roasted, but it was dry and short on flavor, and not crispy around the edges at all. I wanted to taste a tweak of lime or some kind of citrus. This held none. The structure of the sandwich skewed dry: a larger roll with more bread-to-filling ratio, a layer of carnitas, a few jalapenos, tomatoes, onions and a light smear of mayo finished the sandwich. No cilantro sprigs or chiles to be found in this sandwich.
THE VERDICT: Holding the two sandwiches side by side, I’d say I’d have to go with La Fondita, the winner of this sandwich challenge.
Smackdown Torta: The Scorecard
Juiciest meat: La Fondita
Overall flavor: La Fondita
Cilantro sprigs for bonus flavor: La Fondita
Fresher avocado: La Fondita
Taste/texture of roll: La Fondita
Overall selection/variety of sandwiches: Zocalo
WINNER: La Fondita
YOUR TURN: Your favorite place for tortas. Comment here, pretty please.
READ MORE: See our report last year on the city’s best concentration of Mexican restaurants, located within a short driving distance from La Fondita.