Whereas tortas are associated with Mexico City and Guadalajara and Tijuana emphatically prefers tacos, there is one notable exception to the rule: Tortas Wash Mobile. This pair of car wash torta grills has become a Tijuana institution. The first stand was next to Tijuana’s first car wash, founded in 1964. (Now the city seems to have a car wash on every block.) The menu is exactly one thing: a steak sandwich.
The ingredients are a bouncy pile of marinated wood-grilled steak, a tasteful smear of mayo, a thick spread of guacamole, pickled red onions, tomatoes, and a squirt of chili sauce. The bread is a birote roll, a flatter, sour, ciabatta-like version of the classic bolillo torta roll. It’s soft, airy, and a bit yeasty smelling with a long tangy finish. It gets a little smoke flavor from brief toasting over the wood fire. The steak, rendered tender from a long, briny marinade, is freshly grilled throughout the day, attaining a bit of char, then chopped into perfect little tidbits right before being stacked on the sandwich. The onions retain their vegetable flavor but contribute enough acidity to season the entire beefy sandwich.
Part of the genius of these sandwiches is the way their ingredients are kept. The chopped beef stays hydrated in beef juices and the tomatoes and onions soak in vinegar. Everything is already moist and flavorfully seasoned when it gets put on the sandwich.
As is the general preference in Tijuana, there is a lot of avocado on these sandwiches, but not so much that it overwhelms the steak. (Many tacos in town suffer from too much guacamole.) Those who like it hot might do well to ask for extra salsa. Other than that, the sandwich is about perfect.
Although one of these sandwiches costs about the same as three tacos, the meat is at least that many tacos’ worth. They are so famous around the border that people are known to leave the U.S.A. just for a torta, then come right back. It’s only a 10 minute cab ride each way. Lines at customs may vary. The crowds at the grill are perpetual, but the sandwiches are made efficiently.