Eggs are tricky things; they tremble on a fine line between delicious and revolting. An uncooked gelatinous gobbet, that stringy white bit, a few errant shells or even the yellow burst of yolk from a soft poached egg when you’re not quite prepared—all these things can turn a good breakfast bad. This is especially true when your stomach is in that queasy but ravenous morning-after mode, the kind induced by occasions in which the term ‘open bar’ plays a crucial role. In this fragile state, eggs can make or break you so, why take the gamble? Because they are all you crave. Only a combination of eggs, grease and salt will do, preferably doused with more eggs and butter in the form of Hollandaise with some pan-fried potatoes and a bread-sopping element. Chased with a Bloody Mary and you have instant hangover relief—unless, of course, instead of an egg remedy you are delivered a stomach lurching plate of the egg nasty. Oh no!
Fortunately, I live in a brunch wonderland where early morning elves craft magical hangover cures, and I’ve sourced a number of go-to spots where the eggs never err on the side of ick. A few mornings ago, I woke in dire need of their breakfast magic. In fact, I needed nothing short of a miracle in the shape of a Tortilla Espanola—the egg sandwich that rules them all. Potato, onion, eggs, olive oil and salt fried all together, the Tortilla is a dish whose simplicity belies its powers. Many places make them but I know of only two that make them right: Saltie a tiny, nautically themed sandwich spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Brigitte’s. Since Brigitte was the bachelorette of the party that had incapacitated me, the likelihood of her whipping up her famous Tortilla for me was nil. Saltie, however, is two subway trains and almost an hour away—but the Tortilla sandwich they make is worth it, every eggy little crumb.
Brigitte was the first to introduce me to the Tortilla Espanola, which she made in a small but deep pan with sloped sides that seemed designed specifically for the task. With just a few eggs, potatoes, an onion and a live-free-or-die dollop of olive oil, she produced a thick, glistening round of goodness, laced in whorls of golden brown through which the yellow interior shone. In Spain (where Brigitte had lived and thus learned the single most important recipe of her life), Tortilla Espanola is a staple, served in bars on crusty bread slathered with mayonnaise. This is the way we had it for dinner, with a salad of mixed greens dressed with vinaigrette. I had one helping, then another. Later I ate a slice plain for a snack and the next morning I finished it off, cold from the fridge with a cup of coffee. Hot, cold, alone, on bread, it was addictively delicious. And so quick and easy to make! Wrong. Several times I tried to make this dish with one or two passable results but, even without the hangover, it was never quite right. It takes practice, the right potato, vegetables sliced just so, more olive oil than you think and some algorithm of heat, equipment and timing that only Brigitte, Spain and Saltie understand.
Saltie’s handwritten menu features a number of intriguing sandwiches but I’ve never strayed from their version of Tortilla Espanola, ‘The Spanish Armada,’—a thick slab of egg striated with chunks of tender potatoes, smeared with a bright orange pimento aioli and encased in two pieces of fresh focaccia. The smooth, dense texture of the velvet oil infused egg and potatoes, the silky tang of the aioli that seeps into your mouth when you bite through the salty crust, the chewy bread (suffused with even more olive oil) is satisfying on the deepest level like, anticipating season 5 of Mad Men… and then getting to eat it! Yes! It’s that good! On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly score in the style department. This is no place to take your sandwich date. Expect the presentation to be somewhat anticlimactic to the uninitiated, that a portion of the filling will slide out of the bread when engaged in the face stuffing, that your fingers will be shiny with oil and globs of orange goo will glob onto your face and swing through your hair. This is really the kind of thing that should be eaten alone, hunched down in a corner, facing a wall. But it’s okay. It won’t ever let you down, and there will be no tremulous tightrope walk between egg bliss and sudden nausea–at Saltie, it’s always delicious. Just don’t expect to go swimming after. When you heave a brick of satisfaction at your soul, you should then take it home for a nap, along with the buckwheat cookie you ordered for dessert. It will come in handy at the end of the long, subway ride home, on the walk to the apartment—a sweet lift at the end of a successful pilgrimage.
If you’d like to attempt a Tortilla Espanola on your own, Mark Bittman’s recipe for Spanish Tortilla will walk you through with satisfying results.