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Desert Companion

Dining: Tortaland

Torta overboard - Las Famosas

The invisible man behind the legendary, eight-pound torta — and other wonders — at Las Famosas de Jose

Torta man - Fernando RojasIf you want to find the famous Jose from Las Famosas de Jose, you’re going to have a hard time. For one, the famous Jose is actually a restaurateur named Fernando Rojas. Second, he’s so busy with running and managing his two 24-hour restaurants that his level of industriousness makes him almost invisible — he seems to be everywhere and nowhere. He works the kind of ungodly hours (5 a.m. to 8 p.m.) that would make most people hallucinate pink elephants. However, when you do find him, you’ll discover that Fernando is completely lucid — even chipper — and incredibly focused. Being a successful restaurant owner in this economic climate is akin to being a kung fu master; it requires a near-superhuman amount of discipline and dedication. (Being divorced also helps, he says.) Even Fernando’s so-called days off are spent running errands and maintaining his restaurants.

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“Descansar es mas alcanzar,” he says. Translation: Days off mean more time to catch up. But all that hard work pays off: Las Famosas de Jose serves up some of the most authentic — and flat-out biggest and boldest — Mexican food in the valley.

Today, Fernando’s truck is parked in front of the Tropicana location and filled with boxes of fresh, whole pineapples. The restaurant’s sign advertising “Tortas Grandes!” is in a rainbow of colors and nearly impossible to miss as you drive east. Also hard to miss: an advertisement for lengua (tongue). Generally speaking, the likelihood of getting good Mexican food increases whenever there are internal organs on the menu. No enchiladas hardened in a layer of yellow American “cheese.” Las Famosas has the good stuff: carne al pastor rotating on a spit, corn tortillas and homemade salsa that leaves a satisfying ring of fire around your mouth.


Idle creations

Then there are the famous tortas. A torta is like a sandwich, but arguably more awesome, although Fernando shakes his head and claims that the torta is a “creation of idleness.” Much of the torta’s awesomeness has to do with the bolillo, a kind of white bread that looks like a smaller baguette, with a crunchy outside and soft, chewy center. It often has a generous spread of mayonnaise on it and also some kind of delicious meat — such as chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), pollo milanesa (breaded, flattened chicken) or carne asada (marinated steak).  At Las Famosas, they come in gigante size (translation: super huge) or mini-torta size (translation: still substantial). 

His tortas are anything but idle creations. He’s got an eight-pound, $16 monster called La Paquita, which can feed a very hungry person for about two days or about six moderately hungry people for one meal. It includes five kinds of meat (ham, carne milanesa, chorizo, sausage, pork leg) and — just in case you’re really starved for protein — egg. The effect is pretty marvelous: savory, well-marinated and just a tad spicy. If you don’t mind eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, I recommend the torta agohada, or “drowned torta,” which means that your torta will be fully doused with salsa. (Just don’t drown your torta if you want to eat in the car.)


Torta country

Where’d he get such a literally big idea? Fernando pulls out a napkin and borrows my pen to create a an impromptu culinary map of Mexico. He circles the interior of the country, the heart of Mexico — and the heartland of tortas. Fernando himself comes from Mexico City, a place where people from all over the country come to work, and where the regional diversity of Mexico comes together in a confluence of tastes. Las Famosas is similarly cosmopolitan. Fernando is open to taking the requests from customers who, much like the denizens in Mexico City, come from all over.

“Dicen rana y yo salto,” he says. That is, “They say ‘frog’ and I jump.”

But the former Fitzgerald’s hotel-casino chef has plenty of recipes in the can already. At home, he has a handwritten cookbook that took about eight months to put together, and it contains all the recipes used at Las Famosas. (The latest addition to his cookbook is a pink habanero salsa served at the new location on Nellis Boulevard. I tried it on a breakfast taco, and it was spicy enough to act like a caffeine jolt.)

Las Famosas fish tacos

Fernando says that he doesn’t want to sound presumido (like a show-off), but he insists on using the best ingredients he can find: Alaskan tilapia for the fish tacos, Italian bread for the tortas, the best cuts for the carne milanesa. He could buy cheaper ingredients and make a bigger profit, and more than likely, Fernando would be one of the few people to even notice the difference. But you can tell that the marginal difference would bother him. There’s such a well-earned pride about the food that his policy is for people to pay only after they’ve eaten.

The invisible man behind the legendary, eight-pound torta — and other wonders — at Las Famosas de Jose

“It’s not a McDonald’s,” he says. Fernando’s tortas handily beat the Big Mac — by much more than sheer size. 







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