DesBrisay Dines

WEEKLY LUNCH PICK: Mitla reinvents the sandwich with Mexican tortas and cactus quesadillas

Mexico's answer to the sandwich, tortas start with a crusty white roll stuffed with fresh goodies and it all gets grilled on a panini press.

By Shawna Wagman

For me, Mitla is a classroom. I go there to learn about the flavours of Oaxaca, Mexico, from someone who lived there and immersed herself in its food culture. I also go there for a damn fine lunch.

I immediately fell in love with agua de fruta ($3), cold refreshing “fruit water”— in this case, it was mango; the other option was passion fruit — beloved in Mexico for helping to beat the summer heat. I found the amount of sweetness, and the appealing consistency — thirst-quenching drinkable sorbet — just right. I polished it off before my lunch arrived.

Entering the festive red shop (blue from the street) nestled in the heart of residential Vanier, it feels like I am having lunch at the kitchen table in someone’s colourful little home. That someone is owner Ana Collins, who was flying solo in the Oaxacan-inspired kitchen on the afternoon I recently visited for lunch.

Looking up at the chalkboard menu, I quickly noted that many of the Spanish words were unfamiliar and details are few so I asked Collins for some direction. She recommended the torta ($5), a Mexican sandwich — chicken, chorizo or veggie — grilled into crusty-gooey submission on a panini press.

I also wanted to try something made with her homemade corn tortillas so I opted for a pair of quesadillas ($3), intrigued by the cactus and cheese option.

In Mexico--and at Mitla--quesadillas are served for breakfast, lunch or a snack. Fillings can include mushrooms and herbs, cactus and cheese, beans or meat.

It was my first time encountering cactus as anything but a house plant and I’d describe it as a cross between okra and pickles — tangy with a bitter edge. Not my favourite, but it was satisfying when wrapped in the fresh white corn wrapper, melded with cheese and dollops of homemade green and red salsa.

As for the torta, Collins tells me the fresh vegetable toppings are less typical of what is served in Mexico. She gave me the sense that she has been feeling pressure to alter her recipes slightly to satisfy her customers’ tastes and expectations. It’s a story we often here from food businesses from around the world that set up in the capital. I can imagine it’s a frustrating position to be in; the battle between authenticity and marketability.

Authentic or not, this is a sandwich worthy of attention. The texture of the crusty rolls is unique (Collins bakes the bolillos herself but is looking to outsource that task), and the lovely lime mayonnaise is also homemade. The soul of the dish is a smear of slow-cooked black beans infused with garlic and herbs that meld together in the hot press with slices of seasoned chicken, fresh cilantro, slivers of raw onion, creamy avocado, and tomato. Collins has chosen two different cheeses to replicate the flavour and meltiness of a cheese from Oaxaca not available here.

Thanks to Collins, I can now say I have tasted cactus, an icon of Mexican cuisine. But it’s Mitla’s torta that will keep me coming back.

MITLA, 62 Barrette St., 613-842-9058.