On a sunny afternoon in Queens, Galdino Molinero invited me into his truck to photograph the making of an epic sandwich. The owner of neighborhood mainstay Tortas Neza, he clearly kept the vehicle as a second home. In one corner of the truck sat a widescreen television, wrapped in plastic and awaiting the next Mexican soccer match. His hair, dyed a perfunctory shade of gold, complemented his sportswear, and every statement seemed to end in a burst of laughter.
When asked to rank the loves of his life, Molinero wedged family between fútbol and the torta. He encapsulates all three to a penalty, with a reputation so great that locals—including his three-year-old son—matter-of-factly refer to him as "Tortas."
Molinero began selling his sandwiches out of a backpack in Flushing Meadows before hopping from bicycle to cart to full-blown shop over the span of a decade. Just a few months ago, he closed his brick-and-mortar storefront in Woodside and parked the truck just around the corner from his residence in Corona.
The truck was a long way from the cook's hometown in Mexico City. As he threw a fistful of carnitas on the griddle, he recounted stories of Mexican street cooks whose suadero was so good that they couldn't be bothered to carry telera buns. "You buy the bread. You give it the guy," he chuckled, explaining that the task of assembly fell to customers.
Galdino Molinero's decision to become a torta specialist was inspired by a local legend, whose sandwiches drew hungry visitors from far and wide. After moving to the States, Molinero left the construction business to work as a catering cook, preparing meals for a laundry list of organizations including Morgan Stanley, New York University, and the United Nations. Even as he found himself cooking the "family meal" for his crew at the end of every shift, he never tired of perfecting his tortas at home.
One would hope that, somewhere along the way, he traveled the world in a simmering, nihilistic rage, ultimately journeying inward to make himself more than just a man. Unlike Batman, though, Tortas is just a damn good cook.
Christened with the names of Mexican fútbol clubs, Neza's 18 different tortas are prepared with care and a panoply of flavors. The aforementioned Torta Pumas ($14) captures almost all of them in a sandwich the size of a human head; other selections more modestly nestle meats, cheeses, vegetables and herbs into a bun the length of a Nerf football.
Most tortas come standard with lettuce, tomato, avocado, refried beans, and American white cheese. Pickled jalapeno and Tortas' roasted chili sauce ("hormigas") are available on request and should be made mandatory. Any torta with quesillo (fresh, stringy, Oaxacan-style cheese) is especially satisfying, and grilled salchicha (a spiced, hot-dog-like sausage) is a sure way to double down on any choice if you're feeling ravenous. Neza's masterstroke, though, is the moment Tortas throws a completely assembled sandwich on the griddle, searing each bun just enough to paint the surface a crackling brown.
My favorite is the Torta Monarca. The sandwich is mainly a showcase for Tortas' consummate carnitas, grilled for an extra bit of heft after being slow-roasted and stored in their own juices. The preparation pulls no punches in its richness, with well-cooked bits of fat and cartilage happily popping into every third or fourth bite.
The quality extends to Neza's taco selection, covering all manner of Mexican street meat. Tinga, carne enchilada, chorizo, cecina, and suadero are just a few of the choices available, and can be found in other antojitos as well.
Like other established food trucks in this neighborhood, Tortas Neza doesn't seem to enter the same transient conversations that many of New York's street vendors engage on a daily basis. Not one to roll from dot to dot with a trail of Twitter updates, Tortas is on point 12 hours a day, 7 days a week; his truck is a fixture and he is the filament.
Being duly registered with the city, occupying a ho-hum spot on Roosevelt Avenue, and running a tight and clean ship play no small part in this comfort. But it doesn't hurt that Neza serves some of the best sandwiches on this side of the Rio Grande, a clear standout in style and substance from the mass of antojitos carts and taco trucks parked all along the road.
As we polished off our food, Tortas recalled a past conversation with the torta vendor who inspired his taste buds in Mexican city. "Most of the time, you..." he paused, offering a grimace in lieu of a mediocre sandwich. "...No good. You make the food in your heart? It's very very delicious."
In the back of this truck, he's made those words his own.
Tortas Neza Truck
Corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 111th Street, Corona, NY 11368 (map) 347-666-1517 Open 1 PM to 1 AM daily