Archive for Saturday, April 24, 2004

Restaurant dishes Mexican food in corner of Phillips 66 station

April 24, 2004

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You rarely find authentic Mexican food in a gas station.

But that's the case with Tortas Jalisco, a tiny Lawrence restaurant serving Mexican dishes in the corner of the Phillips 66 gas station at 3300 W. Sixth St.

"I was kind of surprised when I came (to work) here -- it's excellent," said Jameel Adnan, 22, a student at Johnson County Community College who lives in Lawrence and works as a clerk at the filling station.

"I've tried a couple of the other Mexican restaurants in town, and these guys can compete with them, even though they're in a gas station. Customers usually ask me if they should try it (the food). I tell them, 'Why not?'"

Despite its unusual location, Tortas Jalisco -- owned by Angel Alvarez and his wife, Laura Romero, -- has attracted quite a following among Lawrence residents.

Like Antonio and Laura Moreno. They started coming to the 20-seat restaurant soon after it opened in September 2003.

"The first time we saw an advertisement (for Tortas Jalisco), we were looking for a big restaurant, and we couldn't find it. So we called, and they said it's inside a gas station," Laura Moreno said.

"It's very good -- real Mexican food in Lawrence. The taste, the seasoning and the ingredients ... mmm, yes, very good."

They should know.

The couple is from Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city located right across the border from El Paso, Texas. They have lived in Lawrence for two years, while Antonio Moreno earns his doctorate in Mexican literature from Kansas University.

"Angel is a typical Mexican -- he's friendly. 'Do you like it?' 'Is it good?' 'Do you want more?' Laura (Romero) is more shy, but she makes the best salsa in Lawrence," Antonio Moreno said.

Customer by customer, Tortas Jalisco is proving that a gas station is as good a home as any for an authentic taste of Mexico.

Why do they call it Tortas Jalisco?

"A torta is a sandwich. It's the way they call it in Mexico," Alvarez said. "You don't say, 'Let's go get a sandwich.' You say, 'Let's go get a torta.'"

And the word "Jalisco" is the name of the Mexican state where Alvarez is from. Romero, meanwhile, is from Puebla, a city located in the Puebla state of Mexico. They have lived in Lawrence for four years.

Huge tortas make up the heart of the restaurant's menu.

The Torta De Tinga, for example, has chicken marinated in a special chipotle sauce with pepper jack cheese, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

The Torta Ahogada has pork, beans, cilantro and onions, smothered with a homemade hot sauce.

Two of the most popular Mexican-style sandwiches, according to Alvarez, are the Torta De Milanesa (hand-breaded beefsteak, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole) and, for vegetarians, the Torta Tres Quesos (three kinds of cheese, guacamole, beans, lettuce and tomatoes).

There also are dinner plates such as enchiladas, flautas, hard and soft tacos, a chimichanga and Jalisco Fajitas (a combination of steak, homemade Mexican sausage, jalapeños, onions and tomatoes served with rice, beans and tortillas).

A highlight of the menu are the Tingas Tostaditas -- three little tostadas heaped with the chipotle-marinated chicken, lettuce and cheese with rice and beans. Bite-sized and meant to be picked up with your fingers, the tostaditas offer a delicious mix of tastes and textures: spicy and mild, soft and crunchy, warm and cooling.

Each sandwich or dish is made to order by Romero in the restaurant's tiny kitchen, which is equipped with a grill, a refrigerator and shelves filled with ingredients from Mexico.

Customers place their order at a counter, and Alvarez or Romero bring the food out to the tables. There is no wait staff.

"It gets very busy at lunch time. People say, 'Why don't you get some help?' I tell them, 'I don't have room.'" Alvarez said.

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