L.A. native Ricardo Diaz opened this Mexican sandwich shop at the end of February with in-laws Elvira and Antonio Zamora. He jokingly said the goal with Elvira was “to get her out of the house and put her to work.” Diaz owns a ten-year-old seafood restaurant down the street called Dorados, specializing in fish tacos and ceviche, but his focus is clearly on Cook’s Tortas. According to Diaz, Cook’s Tortas is named for two reasons: Captain Cook founded the Sandwich Isles and was funded by the Earl of Sandwich, known for creating the first sandwich. Also, after a long night in the kitchen, cooks have a tradition of making sandwiches.
The space features lime colored walls, order at the counter service, twin deli cases, checkerboard tile floors, and plenty of natural light. To get a taste of Diaz’s sense of humor, refer to the framed painting of a monkey in a dress.
Diaz keeps decorative baskets of dry bread behind the counter. He pointed to one misshapen roll and said, “That’s our fertility doll. We keep throwing leftover dough in the oven to see if we get the Virgin Mary, but so far we just keep getting pagan symbols.”
Zamora bakes fresh bread and pastries daily. Diaz’s brother in law was head baker at Bouchon in Yountville, working for Thomas Keller. He came down to Monterey Park to help formulate a slightly sour ciabatta. The starter is from Bouchon, which they’ve been refreshing for eight years.
Diaz is a culinary historian. He said a San Francisco bakery has a sourdough starter that’s 108 years old, and there’s one in Egypt that’s been cultivated for 2000 years. Diaz said, “If you compare the breads, a starter cultivated in Napa is different from one in Monterey Park. In Napa, you might have mustard.”
Diaz has built a book of 500 torta recipes, each assigned a different number. All the options are listed in chalk on a huge blackboard. His favorite is #96 – Beef Tongue. I was also tempted by #151 – Mojito – roasted pork, garlic mojo and slow cooked onions – and #10 – Ahogada – slow cooked pork, spicy double dip, escabeche and extra napkins. There was even a sweet option, #71 – Fruity – mango, apples, orange, cream cheese and honey – but I was going savory all the way.
After deliberating, I opted for #25 – Bacalao ($6.45, with a small side). The sourdough ciabatta was just out of the oven and tasted incredible. The ten-inch loaf was sliced and loaded with a skillet full of potato chunks, red onions, garlic, peppers, green Spanish olives and parsley, all braised in olive oil. Diaz said it’s his mother-in-law’s recipe, a Christmas dish that requires de-salting Nova Scotia cod for two days and 6-8 hours of stovetop braising.
Cook’s Tortas offers several interesting sides, including red fries (sweet potato fries dusted with shichimi togarashi), watermelon pickles and this grated carrot salad, sweet from raisins, green apples and cinnamon.
Ms. Zamora’s buttered biscuit with apple-loquat marmalade was irresistible, nice and moist. There were also house-made strawberry-orange and pear marmalades. The orange butter cookie, dusted with sugar granules, was a little too dry.
It was tempting to go for #1: Chef’s Special. “You’re at my mercy,” and it read “Hint: Bacon, Egg, Avocado.”
As for the future, Diaz plans to open a second Dorados, on the corner of Main & Garfield in Alhambra. He also plans to expand the hours at Cook’s Tortas, once he can find more cooks. I’m looking forward to eating my way through Diaz’s recipe book.