Tortas Ahogadas (Mexican “Drowned” Sandwiches)

Crusty bolillo bread rolls are stuffed with pork carnitas, then “drowned” in a red chili sauce in this easy tortas ahogadas recipe! Top with guacamole, pickled red onions, and cotija cheese, then finish it all off with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

When I was a teen growing up near the border, my uncle owned a Mexican restaurant where I liked to hang out after school. Why hang out at a restaurant? Well for the food of course! My cousins and I could order anything we wanted on the house, which is a pretty sweet deal when you’re 14. I always ordered a machaca burrito or a torta ahogada like the one you see here. Add a couple of Jarritos sodas or maybe a cold glass of horchata on the side? Perfection.

I won’t tell you how many years ago this was (ahem, a lot), but that restaurant has long since closed. And now, in my rural neck of the Northeast woods, it’s impossible to find authentic Mexican food like I remember. So, what’s a gal to do but roll up her sleeves and get busy in the kitchen? That’s exactly what we’re going to do here folks! Get ready to make some tortas ahogadas and meet your new favorite Mexican sandwich.

A homemade bolillo stuffed with carnitas, red onions, guacamole and cheese

What Are Tortas Ahogadas?

Tortas ahogadas literally means “drowned sandwiches.” Essentially, these are tortas (sandwiches) that are smothered in red chili sauce. The sauce can be spicy or mild depending on where you order it from. (My chili sauce below is medium-spicy.) According to legend, this kind of sandwich was created by mistake when a street vendor accidentally dropped a torta into a bowl of salsa.

There are two ways to eat a torta ahogada:

  • Media ahogada – This means “half drowned” and that is the way I made my tortas here. The sauce is spooned under the sandwich, inside the sandwich, and then you dip the sandwich in the sauce on the plate before taking each bite.
  • Bien ahogada – This means “well drowned” and here the sandwich is dipped entirely in chili sauce. I usually don’t do that because I like to eat my tortas with my hands and it gets a bit too messy for me. I also like to add a lot of filling to my sandwiches, which makes fully submerging the torta difficult. If you want to make your torta bien ahogada, use less filling and then dip the entire sandwich in your chili sauce before plating it.

What is the Chili Sauce Made Of?

The chili sauce is simple to make. You just rehydrate the chili peppers, roast Roma tomatoes, then blend them with the other sauce ingredients. Simmer the sauce for a bit, then voila! Homemade chili sauce. Here’s what’s in the sauce:

  • Roma tomatoes – I recommend using these kinds of tomatoes because they deliver superior flavor when made into a sauce. They also don’t have many seeds, which means you don’t have to fuss with removing the insides of the tomatoes before roasting them.
  • Chili de arbol peppers – This is a small, spicy Mexican chili also known as a “bird’s beak chile.” They are between 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville units on the heat scale, which means they are about as hot as a serrano chili. If you don’t want your sauce to be too spicy, use less chilis than what’s in the recipe below. You can find these chilis dried in the ethnic aisle of the grocery store, or on Amazon (affiliate link).
  • Onion and garlic
  • White vinegar
  • Dry spices: Cumin, oregano, sea salt and ground black pepper.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
A bolillo stuffed with pork carnitas, guacamole and red onions with cheese

How to Make Tortas Ahogadas

Before you assemble your sandwiches, you’ll first need to gather your ingredients and make the chili sauce. You should also gather your fixings, whether they are homemade or storebought.

  • Make the bolillos. Or get some crusty bread rolls.
  • Make the pork carnitas. You can also use birria meat here!
  • Make the chili sauce. Rehydrate the chilis in boiling water, then roast the roma tomatoes. Lastly puree everything together in a blender. (Full instructions in the recipe card below.)
  • Assemble your tortas. Slice each bolillo in half, then add a generous amount of carnitas meat. Spoon a generous amount of sauce inside the sandwich. Spoon even more sauce on a plate and then place the torta on the plate. You can also spoon sauce on top of the sandwich.
  • Add your fixings. You can do whatever you like here! I like red onions (or pickled red onions), homemade guacamole and Cotija cheese with a couple wedges of lime to squeeze fresh lime juice on top of the sandwich. You could also add pico de gallo salsa, a drizzle of sour cream, or use other kinds of cheese.

Do I Have to Use Bolillos?

No, you don’t have to use bolillos. In fact, in Guadalajara these sandwiches are made with birotes, which are essentially sourdough bolillos. (I will share a birote recipe soon!) You can also use a sourdough roll or a French baguette. The key is that you want a crusty bread that will hold its shape reasonably well when you add the wet chili sauce on top of it. This is especially important if you want to eat the torta with your hands – if you use a roll that is too soft, it will fall apart after it’s been drowned in the sauce.

Squeezing fresh lime juice on top of a torta ahogada

FAQs

What are “tortas ahogadas” in English?

In English “tortas ahogadas” means “drowned sandwiches.” This name comes from the way the sandwiches are topped with red chili sauce.

Where are tortas ahogadas from?

These kinds of Mexican sandwiches originated in Guadalajara, Mexico in the early 1900s.

How do you pronounce torta ahogada?

You pronounce it: tohr-tah ah-ho-ga-dah

What Goes with Tortas Ahogadas?

These are pretty much a meal on their own, but a nice cocktail is always a good idea in my opinion. These tortas would go well with a Pomegranate Margarita or a Mango Mojito. For non-boozy options, I’d recommend a horchata, Mango Lemonade, or a Roy Rogers drink.

Can I Store Extras For Later?

For the torta: You can store the separate components of the sandwich in order to make another one later, but the assembled torta does not keep well. The bread will become too soggy if it’s allowed to sit in the fridge and the guacamole will brown. So instead store your bolillos on the counter, the carnitas and chili sauce in the fridge etc., then assemble another sandwich when you’re ready to dig in.

For the chili sauce: You can store the chili sauce in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week. You can also freeze it for up to 3 months. Make sure you freeze it in an airtight, freezer-safe container and leave at least one inch of room on top so the sauce has room to expand in the freezer.

A bolillo stuffed with pork carnitas, guacamole and red onions with cheese
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Tortas Ahogadas (Mexican Drowned Sandwiches)

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Crusty bolillo bread rolls are stuffed with pork carnitas, then “drowned” in a red chili sauce in this easy tortas ahogadas recipe! Top with guacamole, pickled red onions, and cotija cheese, then finish it all off with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

  • Author: Rustic Family Recipes
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 20 minutes
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 8 tortas
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Oven
  • Cuisine: Mexican

Ingredients

For the Chili Sauce

  • 68 large roma tomatoes, cut in half
  • 45 dried chili de arbol peppers, deseeded and stems removed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For Serving

Instructions

Gather your ingredients. Make the bolillos or get some crusty bread rolls. Make the pork carnitas. Get out your guacamole and pickled red onions if using. (See recipes linked above.)

Make the chili sauce

Rehydrate the chilis. In a shallow saucepan, bring 1-2 cups of water to a low boil, add the chili peppers and remove from heat to allow the peppers to soak and rehydrate. Once soft in texture, remove the stems and interior seeds.

Roast the tomatoes. On a medium-sized baking sheet. Place the halved tomatoes face side up on the pan. Drizzle with olive oil and place under the broiler for about 10 minutes on low, or until they are soft in the middle and the skin is slightly roasted.

Blend everything together. In a blender or food mixer, place the roasted tomatoes, softened chilis, garlic, onion, vinegar, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Blend until desired texture.

Simmer the sauce. Pour in a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes.

Assemble the Tortas Ahogadas

Assemble the sandwiches. Slice the bolillo rolls lengthwise and top with the generous helping of pork carnitas meat. Slather with the desired amount of chili sauce and then top the sandwich off with pickled red onions, homemade guacamole, and fresh cotija cheese. (Plus whatever other fixings you want.) Spoon sauce onto your plate and place the sandwich on top of the sauce. Serve with a few lime wedges.

Keywords: Mexican sandwiches, tortas ahogadas, bolillo sandwich, carnitas sandwich, red chili sauce

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Reader Questions and Reviews

  1. Wonderful recipe! I made it with the pork carnitas and guacamole and salsa from the store. Everyone loved it.