Mexico’s signature sandwich

Johnny’s Tortas in Old North Dayton

By Tom Baker
Photo: The Campesina torta from Johnny’s Tortas 

When you enjoy a cuisine and then realize you’ve missed an entire facet of what it has to offer, there is a great moment of discovery that you never forget. Mine involves a 24-hour Mexican restaurant in Chicago – on Fullerton near Lincoln Park, if I’m not mistaken – and a dish with which everyone should be familiar – the humble but terrific torta. There, at roughly four in the morning, I tried my first – a Mexican sandwich featuring your favorite protein(s), refried beans, avocado, sour cream or mayo, sometimes rice, often pickled vegetables/jalapenos, lettuce, tomato and onions. Imagine a burrito on soft, grilled bread that on first glance seems odd, but that you soon realize is something almost otherworldly. OK, maybe not, but man are they good, and if you’re anywhere near the intersection of Keowee and Leo you should stop by Johnny’s Tortas.

The history of the torta is unclear, however, it seems that after the arrival of the Spanish and French colonizers, and of wheat flour and bread making, respectively, the torta was born. Served traditionally on rolls such as telera or bollila, the key is that you have bread soft enough not to release its ingredients upon taking a bite, but not so soft that it can’t withstand them and it falls apart. A return to the flat top grill finishes the sandwich with a slight crispiness and warmth that can’t be beat. At Johnny’s, they use great bread topped with sesame seeds and fitting the above criteria perfectly. Johnny’s Tortas has been around for a couple of years, but always left my radar as quickly as it had come. If I remember correctly, someone had hit the building with their car, but other than that there wasn’t much buzz surrounding their opening. Feeling the itch and hoping to find an alternative to the only two legitimate torta-equipped joints in town, I happened to Google “Dayton tortas,” and was pleasantly surprised by the results. Soon, I was headed north just outside of downtown in search of a new torta hook-up. Pulling up, I had a brief flashback to my childhood as the ‘80s-style bell shaped façade appeared, but aside from this architectural similarity, all comparisons stopped. Although you’re standing in what was once a Taco Bell in Old North Dayton, you’d think for a moment that maybe you weren’t quite so close to home. The interior is both festive and basic, and a hand-written menu stretches from one end of the small building to the other. Who knew there were so many tortas? I counted 26 total, so prepare to take a moment to decide. Also serving tacos, burritos and breakfast, about the only thing missing for me was the horchata – bummer.

As you sort through the choices, many of which are named after neighborhoods located around Mexico City, you’ll find that you can get most anything on one of these sandwiches. Some choices include Mexican sausage, steak, chicken, ham, bacon, hot dogs, “pork leg” and egg among others – Anthony Bourdain and his pork-loving kin would be pleased. On my initial visit, I decided to try the Campesina and the Nortena (both $7.99). These are big sandwiches, featuring refried beans, a bit of mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion and some optional pickled jalapenos or chipotle sauce – both recommended if you like it smoky/spicy. I was disappointed when I noticed the avocado missing, but go for the Dieta ($4.99) and you’ll get some there – I’ll ask for it to be added next time. Both sandwiches were tasty, with the Campesina coming in as the favorite with egg cooked into the steak, Mexican sausage and cheese. The Nortena was good, but there was some sort of baloney-like meat – perhaps the yet-to-be-identified pork leg – added to the marinated pork and chicken that we didn’t love. If you’re in the market for a heart-stopping portion of porcine goodness, try the Cubana ($8.99), a festival of pig that includes bacon, pork leg, hot dog, ham, chicken, egg and cheese.

If you’re not that impressed, and you prefer more recognizable items, you can always grab a reliable taco ($1.99 each – go with the pastor/pork, cilantro, onion and lime – tradicional), decent burrito ($5.99 for chicken or beef – definitely add the smoky chipotle sauce and/or pickled jalapenos to ramp it up a bit) or any of the nine different breakfast items served all day long, including my perennial favorites huevos rancheros and chilaquiles (both $5.99). The chilaquiles, a pile of freshly fried tortilla chips, smothered and covered Mexican style with cheese, green salsa, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and two medium eggs off the flat top, makes for a substantial and really satisfying meal no matter what time of day. Throw in a Mexican Coke and you’re all set, and maybe someday they’ll add the horchata.

Now, these may not be my favorite tortas ever, but the fact that we have a dedicated, 7-day-a-week torteria in town is something to celebrate. It’s a welcome addition to Dayton’s dining scene, and another reminder that the fabric of our fair city is only strengthened – and our bellies filled – by the many different fabrics from which it’s woven.

Johnny’s Tortas is located at 1504 North Keowee St. For more information, call 937.224.3147. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Tom Baker at

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