Despite growing up in Tucson and taking Spanish classes for the better part of two decades, it wasn't until just a few years ago that I discovered, at least in Southern Arizona, that tortas aren't cakes, like I had always been taught. To my delight, tortas are savory, delicious Mexican sandwiches.
Kool Tortas is tucked away in a nondescript, mostly empty strip mall on South Sixth Avenue between Ajo Way and Irvington Road, with bars on the windows and security cameras out front. Inside, it's very IKEA-like in its modernness, with fresh, brightly colored walls and clean, sparse furniture and decorations. But the cool, modern interior is offset well by the warm, friendly, mostly-in-Spanish counter service.
The sandwiches are delightful. There's really no other way to describe them; I believe it's the bread that's the key to their deliciousness. Much like the Sonoran hot dog, or the Philadelphia cheesesteak, the secret lies within the soft, buttery bread. Of course, it helps that stuffed in between those buttery halves is something out of a carnivore's wet dream.
The kool torta (all tortas are $6.50 and include a fountain drink and fries) was our favorite of all the sandwiches. Grilled steak, bacon and green chiles were chopped together into a fine filling, then generously sprinkled with Chihuahua cheese and smeared with refried beans. The bacon was crisp and salty, contrasting beautifully against the soft, rich bread. All of the tortas come with thick avocado slices, shredded lettuce, fresh tomato, a mysterious but flavor-packed "dressing" and butter.
The fabulosa torta came in a close second, with grilled steak, marinated shredded pork, Chihuahua cheese, green chile and grilled onions.
The food feels fantastically homemade at Kool Tortas. The fries, while utterly crisp, hot and delicious, are reminiscent of those crinkle-cut frozen fries that I so often ate with breaded chicken strips as a kid. The horchata and aguas frescas ($1.75), which taste like they're made from scratch, sit in big, chilled punch containers and are gently stirred up and ladeled into your cup.
The mollete ($3.50), a sort of south-of-the-border French-bread pizza, is like something one of my childhood friends' abuelas would have made us as an after-school snack. The torta bread is buttered and toasted, smeared with beans and sprinkled lightly with bacon crumbles and cheese; it's a huge portion of four loaded-up bread slices, especially considering the low price.
The pierna torta was tender, slow-cooked pork leg garnished simply with Chihuahua cheese and raw onion. The delicate pork flavor wasn't overwhelmed by the other flavors, but I found myself wishing I had ordered the pastor torta instead, after trying a street-style pastor taco ($1.50); its marinated shredded pork had a bolder flavor, complemented by diced onions and cilantro.
The only torta that I didn't find quite as tasty was the milanesa torta, filled with super-thin breaded sliced steak, "yellow" cheese and onion. The American cheese made the sandwich sort of sticky and completely overpowered the crispy steak.
I'll definitely be stopping in for more tacos ($1.50 each), which are fantastic and made even better after a visit to the fresh salsa bar, which includes several types of salsa, avocado crema, pickled jalapeños and more. Kool Tortas doesn't currently serve dessert, but their menu says they'll soon be serving up slices of the famously rich and moist tres leches cake.
The only real disappointment was the lack of customers I encountered on both visits. The trifecta of friendly service, affordable prices and amazing food is a rarity, and I hope it continues at Kool Tortas.