There is one aspect of Mexican cuisine that hasn’t been exploited to the level burritos and tacos have enjoyed, and that is the torta. Torterias line Mexico City streets, each with its own style of torta, which is generally a meaty sandwich stuffed with beans, Oaxaca cheese, onion and avocado. I never gave much thought to Mexican sandwiches–mostly because I love tortillas–but the torta is revered at Tortugas.
When I first saw the name Tortugas, I immediately thought of Pirates of the Caribbean and turtles. So I asked owner Luis Martinez about the name.
“‘Tortugas’ in Spanish means ‘turtles,'” he said. “But in Mexico City, people also use this word when talking about tortas as a slang. People will say, ‘Let’s go get some Tortugas’ instead of tortas. So once we zoned in on the concept, we thought that Tortugas would be fitting, being that we specialize in tortas and that Maui is a haven for turtles.”
The torta is street food–think of it as a po’boy of Mexico fused with some fillings familiar to the taco and burrito. They are portable, filling and usually very meaty. The bread is soft, oval-shaped roll called the telera. Tortugas has gets their teleras made in a local bakery. They also prepare all their fillings by hand in the restaurant.
“Every meat we use here in the restaurant is carefully handled and prepared by our team,” said Martinez. “We have strict recipe guidelines so that we make sure that we only use the very best. We use different cuts– chicken thigh is juicier and more flavorful than breast; beef rib-eye is very tender and flavorful; and pork shoulder. From these and a couple other cuts, we cook and prep the different torta and taco ingredients. We do not use chorizo that came from some factory and then add ingredients to it like so many others. Ours is made from scratch: we use ground pork and mix over 13 different spices and peppers. The result is an explosion of flavors.”
Their most popular torta is the Cubano, which contains lightly breaded rib-eye, chorizo and slow-cooked pork ham. The sandwich also contains chipotle beans, avocado, Oaxaca cheese, their house-prepared jalapenos and chipotle mayo. The Cubano is also the most popular torta in Mexico City as well, and typically utilizes all the meats the establishment has.
“[Our] recipes, for the most part, came from visiting Mexico City many times in 2013,” Martinez said. “We sought out the best tasting tortas and then came back and tried to recreate these with the use of local products. It was a trial-and-error process. We wanted to get as close to the tortas we tried in Mexico as we possibly could. Many of the recipes we use came from family and friends and we added our own flair to it. With many years of experience in the restaurant business, it wasn’t hard before we were happy with what we had created.”
Tortugas features nearly a dozen different Tortas, ranging in price from $7 to $10. The Hawaiian is a ham and pineapple riff; the Chicken Milanesa includes breaded chicken and ham; and the Three Sausage is a melting pot sando of beef franks, chorizo and Portuguese sausage. All have beans, cheese and various veggies consisting of Maui onion, jalapeno and/or avocado. They also offer a meatless variety with cotija and oaxaca, tomato, avo, onion and beans. The keiki tortas are kid-friendly Beef Frank and Egg, Spam and Egg or Chicken and Ham and sell for $3.99.
You’re also welcome to design your own. The ingredients are along a line Subway-style.
During a recent visit, I tried their new Pork Adobo Torta. The pork in adobo sauce was tender, slow-roasted and shredded. The textures and combination of onion, beans and jalapeno was new to me, but certainly enjoyable. You can add a gastro-pub flair by ordering an egg on any torta, too. They also serve breakfast with a chorizo potato and egg version and a beef and egg version called the Machaca.
At first, Tortugas resisted putting tacos on the menu, but seeing the popularity of the requested item they eventually relented and added a half dozen different versions, ranging from $1.99 to $2.25. They’re served “street style”–ala carte–with two heated corn tortillas stuffed with whatever you order. You won’t find heaps of lettuce and tomato here, just onions, cilantro and Cojita. They’re also drizzled with green or red sauce.
“What inspired us to do tortas was that we love them,” Martinez said. “We also know how important they are to true Mexicans. Living here, we realized that there were a few Mexican places, but focused on mainstream Mexican. We wanted to do something very authentic and it doesn’t get more authentic than Tortas!”
Tortugas is also working on a food truck to take their tortas on the road to Kihei and Lahaina. They open at 8am and are located around the corner from Longs and Whole Foods at the Maui Mall. They serve food through 8pm.
70 E. Ka’ahumanu Ave., Kahului
Photos by Sean Hower