Tortuga Sandwich Shop is one of the best restaurants in Niagara County. It also has one of the worst names.
Sandwiches are one of six ways to enjoy the South American flavors that are Tortuga’s specialty. That Chivito ($14.25) – an armada of thin-sliced marinated steak, bacon, grilled provolone cheese, chimichurri, garlic aioli and an over-easy egg – can arrive over a “power grain” pilaf of quinoa and brown rice.
Or a pile of exuberantly crispy potato wedges, a green salad or saffron rice. Wrapped in a flour burrito is another option.
Thinking of Tortuga as a sandwich shop erases 83 percent of the menu. That didn’t stop Frank Gourmet Hot Dogs or Just Pizza, but it’s keeping this Sanborn standout from getting the audience it so richly deserves.
In a cozy room with single-digit parking spots, 1993 Tonawanda High School grad Andrew Smiedala, partners with his wife, Bolivian-born Carla (nee Sanchez-Olmos). They turn out dishes inspired by the cuisine of Peru, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere, found nowhere else in Western New York.
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Nothing costs $15.
A boat of conspicuously crunchy Tortuga potato wedges dressed with killer combinations costs less than 7-Elevan nachos. Try aji-amarillo-chile-laced Peruvian cheese sauce and herbed aioli ($5.75), shaved Manchego cheese, garlic aioli and Spanish smoky-spicy brava tomato sauce ($5.75), or Mexican chorizo, queso blanco, chipotle sauce, and sweet pickled jalapenos ($6.25).
The entrees – I won’t call them sandwiches and be five-sixths wrong – are homages to celebrated South American dishes, some sandwiches, some not.
Lanza cribs from the Argentinian choripan with split, griddled Argentinian sausage, fresh tomato salsa, and a slab of provolone cheese griddled to golden brown. Plus chimichurri, a coarse sauce of cilantro, parsley, garlic and jalapeno that delivers a pesto-plus blast of freshness.
Peru’s famed lomo saltado shows up in Sanborn as the Chino ($14). Invented by Peru’s Chinese community, it’s a stir-fry of soy-marinated steak, tomatoes, French fries and more. Tortuga’s ensemble surrounds steak with sautéed onions and red peppers, blistered tomatoes, crispy potato sticks and spicy aji amarillo chile cheese sauce.
Gustavo ($13.75) cribs a move from Nashville chicken, presenting as crispy Southern-fried breast dipped in swarthy chile sauce, with fresh mashed avocado, jack cheese, sweet jalapenos and aioli.
Peruvian-marinated grilled chicken in the Brasa ($13.25) is arrayed with fresh avocado, powerfully citrusy aji verde sauce, coleslaw and crispy potatoes. Mexican chorizo gives backbone to the Zamira ($13), with sliced avocado, jack cheese, an egg over easy, fried potatoes and guajillo chile salsa.
Salmita ($9.75) brings in salsa Veracruz (tomatoes, olives, capers) to jazz up grilled zucchini layered over whipped goat cheese and dressed greens. Tortuga’s toppings get as simple as Evita ($8.75), grilled provolone and chimichurri on a broad swath of griddled garlic bread, or one of the other five contexts.
Entrees come with agave-lime slaw or housemade potato chips. Or you can get $1 off the other sides, a pitch worth serious consideration, because these are serious sides.
Elote pasta salad ($4.50) of roasted corn, pearl pasta, anejo cheese, tomatoes, lime aioli dressing and tajin, Mexican chile-lime seasoning. Elocos ($5.50), or Mexican roasted corn fritters, get dusted chile powder and cotija cheese, served with chipotle mayonnaise, pickled jalapenos and a lime wedge.
Tortuga mac and cheese ($4-$6) also heads south for inspiration but takes a left turn at Albuquerque, blending roasted Hatch chiles from New Mexico with sharp cheddar over shell macaroni.
Pelotas ($6) are a Spanish-inflected take on arancini, Italian fried risotto balls. Crumb-coated golden orbs of saffron rice with a core of molten Manchego cheese, they come with a one-two combo of punchy dips, garlicky aioli and that smoky-spicy Spanish tomato sauce.
Specials are worth keeping an eye on: quesabirria con consommé, Mexican braised beef tacos fried in stewtop fat and served with a cup of broth; Spanish Harlem, a version of the New York City style chopped cheese; a Cubano, and The Wiz, Smiedala’s ode to the Philly cheesesteak.
Tortuga introduced me to one of the world’s great cookies, alfajores ($4.25). Butter cookies sandwiching dulce de leche caramel with a sprinkle of sea salt are then rolled in unsweetened coconut flakes. This pleasure puck is headed top shelf.
Try Aztec cake ($6) of chocolate mousse, more salted caramel, whipped cream and cinnamon crumble for its darker, less sweet approach to chocolate, or rosquillas, warm fried doughnuts with Spanish dipping chocolate ($5.50).
The limeade of the week ($3.50), made with fresh fruit, is always worth considering, for unusual puckery pleasers like pineapple, blood orange or Granny Smith apple.
Here’s hoping the free market currents that washed this seedling ashore in Sanborn also flood it with customers, encouraging Smiedala and company to continue their journey. These cooks and their works deserve a bigger audience.
Do your part. Stop by and see if Tortuga can get you out of your shell.
Tortuga Sandwich Shop
5835 Buffalo St., Sanborn (tortugasandwich.com, 716-216-6003)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $4-$6; mains, $8.75-$13.50.
Atmosphere: quiet satisfaction
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: most of the menu, except bread.
Outdoor dining: no
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