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South of the Border sandwiches

Puras Tortas takes a little getting used to

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The Fourth Earl of Sandwich was an 18th-century British politician so industrious that he scarcely made time for meals. As a time-saver he'd wolf down meat between two slices of bread -- hence the culinary invention that bears his name. Despite its English origins, the sandwich proves ideally suited to the on-the-go pace of America, and has made inroads in other nations as well.

The name of Norcross' Puras Tortas restaurant roughly translates as "pure sandwiches," and Mexican sandwiches are the foundation of its dine-in/ carry-out menu. Puras Tortas has "Authentic Popular Mexican Food" as a slogan, although some of its items may be more authentic than some American diners are ready for.

Puras Tortas stands at the corner of the Plaza Mexico strip mall on Beaver Ruin Road (which always makes me wonder if it's really been the ruin of many a beaver). It's a charming little space, spotlessly clean (and proudly displaying its perfect 100 score from a health inspection). None of the menu boards are in English, but there are printed menus for non-Spanish speakers.

The restaurant has a playful and inviting decor: next to the display case up front, shelves are painted summery yellows, purples and greens. The tables have green-and-white checked cloths and green-painted chairs, although you might equally enjoy sitting at the handsome counter of glazed terra cotta tile. The front window features a sizable traffic light, a wreath of garlic hangs over the door and a small shrine is festooned with Christmas decorations. Puras Tortas seems like a great place to hang out and watch a soccer match or listen to the jukebox while enjoying milk shakes ($3.50) or Mexican soft drinks like Jarritos or Boing.

Unfortunately, the food isn't quite as pleasing as the environment. On our first visit, my wife tried a poblana torta and I had a fiestera torta. Both sandwiches are $6, with thick slices of lightly toasted bread along with bits of tomato, onion, avocado and a slice of Mexican cheese. The fiestera, "cod fish cooked Mexican style," proved rather like Brunswick Stew on a bun, with the meat tasting like a finely chopped fishstick, only without the breading. Served in a mug, it'd be a hot and hearty cold-weather entree, but on bread it quickly becomes a gloppy mess.

The poblana torta, shredded chicken with mole sauce and refried beans, similarly had the consistency of a sloppy Joe, and the mole was disappointingly ordinary: sweetness was the primary flavor. Sandwiches come accompanied by fine but unmemorable french fries, as Puras Tortas serves no chips 'n' salsa. Each table does feature a bowl of pickled jalapenos and chopped carrots, but unless you have a sky-high tolerance for spicy, don't get your tongue anywhere near it.

Puras' sandwiches may be an acquired taste, but we felt on safer ground with the more familiar Mexican dishes. The gringo burrito ($5.50) was generously stuffed with tasty morsels of chopped beef, as well as beans, cheese and sour cream. The soft tacos ("tacos de guisado") are each wrapped in two corn tortillas and cost $2 each, with the Chorizo and potato being especially flavorful. Chorizo (Mexican sausage) often can be dry, but here it proved adequately moist and meaty, with the starchy bits of potato providing a softer counterpoint on the palate.

The pork tips in green sauce taco offered delicious meat, like bites of chewy pork chop, with slices of zucchini for contrast. But the pork portions come in the style of stew meat, with bits of tendon or bone inside, so you can't carelessly consume the taco. The poblano pepper in the chile relleno taco wasn't too sharp, but was rather ordinary as well. But the red and green salsas add zip wherever needed.

Puras Tortas demonstrates that authentic cooking may not initially be the taste of the uninitiated, but it offers pleasant surroundings for experimentation.

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