A Soothing Sandwich for Troubled Times: Bocadillo de Tortilla

Published: Oct 18, 2022  |  

Current affairs writer based in Andorra

There is, probably, no human emotion that is truly universal. But some are more common than others, and few are as familiar as these: feeling overwhelmed by an array of choices, and being hungry for a nice sandwich. When these experiences intersect, as they often do, the bocadillo de tortilla española is here to help.

It is a simple yet elegant sandwich—a thick slice of Spanish tortilla (picture a small circular cake made of egg, potato, and onion, and then imagine something that tastes much better than that sounds) squeezed between a baguette sliced lengthwise. The bread is usually rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and salt. Sometimes a few pieces of lettuce may be involved. But that’s about as complex as the bocadillo de tortilla will get.

I’m not here to argue that it’s the greatest sandwich in the world. However, I would argue that ranking sandwiches is a pointless exercise, and perhaps indicative of the hyper-comparative mindset that contributes to people feeling hungry-stressed in the first place. Instead, I would like to celebrate the bocadillo de tortilla for being enough—enough to satisfy a broader segment of tastes, in a broader range of circumstances, than almost any other sandwich.

Part of the appeal of the bocadillo de tortilla is its high floor. Plenty of sandwiches have high ceilings: ordering a pastrami on rye from a fancy deli can be a religious experience. But how confident would you feel trying your luck with one at a gas station in the middle of nowhere? Or consider the post-Christmas ham sandwich versus the version served in school lunchrooms. The variance is enormous; frankly it’s absurd that both are known by the same name. The bocadillo de tortilla, on the other hand, offers that rarest and most precious of 21st century promises: consistent satisfaction.   

When a bocadillo de tortilla is good, it’s really good. It feels substantial in the hand, but unlike many modern sandwiches, it’s not so oversized that you have to unhinge your jaw to take a bite. The just-crunchy-enough shell of the baguette gives way to the bread-fluff, soaked in the fat of the olive oil, the acid of the tomato, and the salt of the… salt. It’s literally a scientific formula for tasting good. Then there’s the tortilla itself, soft but with robust toothfeel, a comforting mixture of hearty and familiar flavors that satiates even the rumbliest of tummies without making you feel like a human Kirby.  

Here’s the best part: when it’s bad, a bocadillo de tortilla is still pretty good! That’s the beauty of a sandwich that only has two main ingredients, both of which are high floor foods themselves. A realistic worst-case scenario is a 6/10 sandwich. In theory that number could be lower if, say, you’re dealing with a moldy baguette or a tortilla that’s been sitting on the counter for a week. But even those examples illustrate the sandwich’s baseline standard of quality—you have to really try to fuck it up.

I’ve eaten thousands of bocadillos de tortilla over the years and I’ve yet to encounter a single one I’ve truly regretted. In a world that feels increasing cruel and capricious, this is a stable sandwich, a trustworthy sandwich, a sandwich you can rely on. The versatility of a bocadillo de tortilla is downright astonishing. I’ve had them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it’s never felt “wrong” the way spaghetti at 8 a.m. feels wrong. I’ve ordered them in grimy Andalusian truck stops and chic Madrid cafes, in mom-and-pop Basque restaurants and Catalan chain bakeries. I’ve made them at home, in hotel rooms, and more than one park bench. I’ve never spent over €6 (on a per-sandwich basis), and I’ve never spent a moment wishing I’d eaten something else. 

Unlike other sandwiches of its genus, such as the chip butty—an English monstrosity consisting of white bread, thick-cut chips, and whatever sauces are close at hand—the bocadillo de tortilla isn’t merely the refuge of drunkards and broke university students. It’s truly the people’s sandwich. A fussy schoolkid can appreciate it, as can their gourmand grandparent. Vegetarians adore them, and even devout carnivores will find nothing to scoff at. There’s something beautiful about such a humble pile of ingredients having such widespread appeal.

Maybe it’s silly to celebrate a sandwich like this, especially one that’s ubiquitous in one country while being a rarity almost everywhere else. Fine, that’s fair. But even if you don’t live in a place where you can walk into almost any bar, restaurant, grocery store, or fuel emporium at any time of day and pick up a bocadillo de tortilla, it can be reassuring merely to contemplate its existence. This is a sandwich that resists the volatility of modern existence; that defies the notion that everything we love must constantly be reimagined or reinvented.  It’s a sandwich that knows what it is, and has never aspired to be anything more complex. It’s a sandwich that reminds us: keeping it simple can be pretty great.

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