One of my favorite Mexican sandwiches is the Torta de Milanesa, which I enjoyed recently at Tacos el Tio #4, 1115 Lake St. in Oak Park. This torta usually features beef or chicken, pounded, breaded, and fried, then put on a white bread bun with avocado, lettuce, tomato and usually salsa. This Torta de Milanesa at Tacos el Tio #4 had thin sheets of beef, lightly breaded, fried almost crunchy, offering a pleasant textural contrast with the soft bun and avocado.
When I first visited Mexico City in the late 70s, the Torta de Milanesa was one of the foods I regularly sought out. It was inexpensive and made for one tasty lunch.
The Torta de Milanesa is one of Mexico’s many fusion foods, a blend of indigenous and European culinary traditions, specifically Italian, Spanish, and French.
The central protein of this sandwich is a meat cutlet, breaded and fried in the manner of Milan’s cotoletta de Milanesa, a dish from Milan in Italy’s northern Lombard region, which could very well have been influenced by the quite similar Austrian wiener schnitzel. It’s believed that this method of preparing meat was brought to Latin America by Italians who emigrated there in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
Beef came to the Americas with the Spanish, who brought cows, cattle, and horses across the water with them in their centuries-long effort to gain control of the New World.
The traditional, indigenous carb platform for proteins in Mexico and other parts of Latin America is, of course, the corn tortilla. Aztec, Maya, and other native peoples in the Americans did not traditionally consume white bread, principally because they didn’t use wheat flour. The white bread torta came with the Europeans, who introduced what became a staple foodstuff throughout Mexico and Latin America. The bolillo is a diamond-shaped bread bun used in a Torta de Milanesa – and that, it turns out, is ironic.
As most of us know by now, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 defeat of the French empire by Mexican troops in the state of Puebla. Even after their unexpected defeat, the French were not yet done with Mexico, and they returned shortly thereafter and installed the French emperor, Maximillian, who eventually faced a Mexican firing squad. Napoleon III had decided to remove French troops from Mexico, which ended French occupation of the country. The French influence in Mexican food continues, however, with the bolillo, a French bread-type roll, as well as the baguette and delicate pastries that you can find in Mexico’s larger cities and throughout the Chicago area in Hispanic bakeries. For a good example of French-Mexican baked goods, visit Pierre’s Bakery West, 6310 Cermak Rd. in Berwyn, where cakes like the French Connection (a frosted, fruit-filled cheesecake) share shelf space with traditional Mexican flan and tres leches cakes. The Mexicans may have driven the French from Mexico, but the baked goods left behind by the French continue to loom large in Mexican foodways.
The Torta de Milanesa seems an appropriate meal to have during Cinco de Mayo, though the sandwich is beloved all over Latin America. If you can’t wait until the fifth of May to have your Torta de Milanesa, you can have one on May 3rd to celebrate Argentina’s Day of the Milanesa. It’s a good sandwich.