Discovering the hidden kingdom—and ridiculous tortas—of J.C. King’s
More Our First Time
A beer run to Discount Liquor or baby delivery at St. Luke’s may not be the only reasons to beat a hasty trek westward on Oklahoma Avenue. Somewhere in the nether region of Pirates Cove Diving Inc. and the Zablocki Community Center, and miles from the beaten path of National Avenue margarita slingers that unfortunately top every “Best Of” Milwaukee list for Mexican, lays a hidden, different sort of tortilla crunch. J.C. King’s has already staked a claim of the taco truck scene with a couple of South Side mobile units, but the restaurant location remains something of an unknown obscurity.
Combine that with the newfound table wait at Guanajuato, and our appetite was more than ready for trip to a neighborhood Google maps calls “Morgandale.”
The space: Hang a left turn at Mi Super Foods, go half a block, and you’ll spy a googley-eyed cartoon of Mexican foodstuff. Is that a Quesadilla? Torta? Hunk of queso with green mold? Flauta with hemorrhoids? Whatever, the logo is pointing giddily and with great purpose, patting his gut, and for some unseen act of nobility has been conferred with a crown. If, like us, you find this the kind of determined, esteemed character to get behind, follow his directions inside. There, the building’s bastardization of Packers green-and-gold continues, as does the simple, downhome southsidedness: eight Formica tables, tile floors, a deli counter housing nothing but horchata, and a few aguas frescas ($2).
The service: On a recent Saturday evening the crowd was a mixed bag of hungry looking neighborhood folks. Some were opting for takeout, while some were hunkering down with chips, a Jarritos ($2), and laborious study of the Tolstoy-esque litany of torta types. For regulars and north-of-Oklahomans alike, the tableside manner was friendly, the food delivery slow, and the vibe welcome and easy.
The A.V. Club’s food: You could try a taco ($1.50), the true testament to any Mexican kitchen’s caliber; you should try the guacamole ($2.50), here with delightful creaminess countered by whole avocados on top. A massive chalice of shrimp soup ($9.50) looked worth a splurge, too. But it’s all going to underscore that fact that this is, first and foremost, a torta joint.
For the uninitiated, a torta is like the burrito’s hipper cousin. This is a sandwich. Slap any decent ingredients between the fluffy, French-like bolillo rolls and call it a day. Then there are JC King’s tortas: hulking battering rams of meat, cheese, and slop. Served in three huge sections, with beans, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, avocado, mayonnaise, and jalapenos or chipotles, on bread custom fit at the big and wide store, they lay in your stomach post-meal like an anchor. Really, it’s all too much—especially the sheen of oil atop the bread. There’s enough grease going on inside, thank you, and maybe in this case the roll should act more like a sponge than a topping.
And then there are the combinations: You want a hot dog in with your breaded chicken breast, melted brick cheese, and Mexican sausage? How about some pineapple with your ham and American cheese? What about tomales in your torta? For the vegetarians there is the “Vegetariana,” featuring, of course, turkey breast. And if you think that you’ll be a reasonable human being and only order a half portion, you’ll have to request a “chica” size.
After great pondering, we settled on the Chilanga ($10 for a “Grande,” and for maintaining man-card status). It was relatively straight-ahead with milanesa (breaded steak), ham, Mexican sausage, and melted brick cheese, customized with jalapenos and chipotles. Each bite seemed to alternate between “amazing,” and taking part in a man vs. food challenge. The milanesa was thin, tender, and lovingly breaded. The ham was nicely crisped, and our chipotles made fast friends with the copious mayo, leaving a slick sauciness and not a few post-bite finger-licks. The bean and avocado spread was subtle enough, and with two handy ketchup squirt containers of sauce—chipotle and jalapeno—one might wonder what there is to complain about. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have started the meal with the Frijoles Borrachos ($2.50), a broth-y soup of beans, bacon, and sausage. Or perhaps the Alitas Endiabladas ($5) could have been the overkill. But it’s not our fault that we had never seen chicken wings on a Mexican menu before. Nor can we be blamed that, with a singular cayenne-and-honey tasting sauce, that they were also impossible to put down.
Anything worth doing is worth over-doing. But in this case, instead of dessert, we opted for a nap.
The verdict: Greasy, mammoth, cheap, and delicious. Maybe we’re still not sold on monarchy, but there’s a lot more here than in-the-know obscurity and torta-girth. We—along with our cardiologist-to-be—would surely have a problem with JC King’s if it were any closer to home.