Meatballs in Guajillo Sauce Sandwiches {Torta de Albondigas en Salsa Guajillo}

These turkey meatballs in a sauce that marries tomatillos and guajillo chiles are perfect stuffed into crusty bread for a satisfying lunch or dinner.

It doesn't matter whether you call them polpettes (Italian), koftas (Middle Eastern), keftedes (Greek), k├Âttbullars (Swedish), bola bola (Filipino), or albondigas (Mexican), meatballs in nearly all their incarnations, are among one of my favorite foods. 

Cooked in marinara or swimming in broth like minestra maritata (Italian wedding soup) or sopa de albondigas (Mexican meatball soup), meatballs can be an appetizer, starter or main course depending on size and preparation. 

The inspiration for today's recipe comes from an episode of "Pati's Mexican Table," hosted by Pati Jinich on PBS. In the episode, she made a basic guajillo salsa for turkey meatballs that she served over plain white rice. Jinich is a James Beard award-winning Mexican chef and television personality. I love her enthusiasm for sharing and teaching Mexican cooking techniques and traditions. "Pati's Mexican Table" has been on PBS for ten seasons. Her new show on PBS is "La Frontera," which features the flavors found along the U.S. and Mexican border.

I've used Jinich's recipe as a jumping-off point. My guajillo salsa is quite different, which shouldn't come as a surprise since I've stated many times before that every household has a particular way of making even the most popular Mexican dishes. I add thyme and oregano to my version. Surprisingly, Jinich adds tomatillos to hers. It's not something I'll adopt and add every time I make guajillo salsa, but for this dish, I added them and liked the results: their acidity lifts and brightens the overall flavors.

Her meatball recipe calls for only a tiny amount of onion, breadcrumbs, egg, salt and pepper. I love turkey, but I find it needs a little more help than just salt and pepper. Plus, if you read my previous meatball recipe, you know that I like to compliment whatever meat I use with spices and herbs. Here, I've added two warming spices: cumin and allspice. I feel they counterbalance the acidity of the sauce as well as the thyme and oregano. Mexican moles often use this combination of herbs and spices, so you know they complement each other well.

Because one of my favorite ways to eat meatballs is in a sandwich, I've stuffed them into a Mexican roll called birote. Birotes are a small baguette-shaped, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, slightly salty French-style bread that is native to the Mexican state of Jalisco. Even in San Diego, they aren't the easiest to find, so feel free to use bolillos, readily available at local Mexican markets and even some well-stocked grocery stores. Bolillos are a smaller, less salty version of birote. They have a softer exterior but are just as tender on the inside. If you can't find either of them near you, a traditional French baguette will do just fine (flat teleras, another Mexican bread used for tortas, is the wrong shape for a meatball sandwich).

To serve, I like to cut a slit down the top of the bread instead of making a more traditional slice horizontally through the middle. This top cut keeps the bread intact, so the meatballs don't slide out when you chomp down on the sandwich. It also helps to remove some of the bread's interior (save it for sopping up some of the sauce!) to make room for the meatballs. Top with more sauce to taste and sprinkle with queso fresco.

Meatballs in Guajillo Sauce Sandwiches 

{Torta de Albondigas en Salsa Guajillo}
adapted from a Pati Jinich recipe

Guajillo chiles create beautiful red sauces with an earthy, fruity, and slightly tangy flavor profile. Great alone or combined with other chiles for even more complexity, they have a barely-there level of heat, making them an excellent workhorse in the Mexican kitchen. Making the sauce is like a choreographed dance: raising and lowering the heat several times during the cooking process. First, you fry the sauce at a higher heat (Mexican cooks call this step "seasoning the sauce"), then lower the heat to reduce and concentrate the flavors, cooking out the "rawness" of the spices and chiles. You'll bring the heat back up to when you add the broth to better marry it to the concentrated chile mixture and then reduce and simmer while you form the meatballs.

Serves 6


For the sauce:
8 guajillo chiles, stems removed and deseeded
2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed and fruit rinsed to remove sticky residue
2 tablespoons avocado oil (or other neutral oil), divided use
½ white onion, rough chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup chicken stock

For the meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
½ cup plain bread crumbs
1 egg, slightly beaten
½ white onion, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ -1 cup chicken stock, if needed

For the sandwiches:
6 birotes, bolillos or sandwich sized baguettes
queso fresco, crumbled
⅓ cup rough chopped cilantro, optional


Fill a large saucepan two-thirds of the way with water and set over medium-high heat. Heat a griddle or large cast-iron skillet on medium heat. Quickly rinse the exterior of the chiles under cool running water and gently pat dry with paper towels. Toast the chiles on the griddle for 1 minute on each side. Add the chiles and the tomatillos to the saucepan, making sure that the water covers by 2 inches, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes or until the tomatillos have changed from a bright green to a dull olive. Turn off heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Transfer fruit and chiles to blender with ½ cup of the simmering liquid. Set aside.

Grind the thyme and oregano with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Add to the blender along with the sea salt.

Warm one tablespoon of oil in a stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the garlic cloves and roughly chopped onions. Stir-fry until just starting to get golden at the edges. Transfer them to the blender with the chiles and tomatillos. Blend on high for 2-3 minutes in a high-powered blender (or 5-8 minutes if using a standard blender) or until mixture is completely smooth.

Add the rest of the oil to the stockpot/Dutch oven over medium-high heat and once oil is hot, pour in the sauce and fry, stirring for 1 minute. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes to reduce the sauce which concentrates the flavors. Stir in the chicken stock, raise the heat to medium-high and bring it to a soft boil for 5 minutes. Lower heat again to medium-low, partially cover and simmer while you form the meatballs.

Add all the ingredients for the meatballs – except for the chicken stock – to a large bowl. With an open hand and fingers flared, gently rake through the ingredients, lifting from the bottom and folding until well incorporated (to avoid compacting and overworking the meat, don't squish the meat or pound it while mixing). Form into 18 meatballs, placing them on a sheet pan until they are all formed. Drop them into the Dutch oven, making sure they all are in contact with the simmering sauce; add more chicken stock if needed. Partially cover and allow to simmer for 35-40 minutes or until the internal temperature of a meatball measures 165 degrees; halfway through cooking, stir meatballs to bring the ones from the bottom to the top.

To serve, slit the bread down the top length-wise. Smear some of the guajillo sauce inside the bread, then stuff three meatballs inside. Top with more sauce, queso and cilantro, to taste.

Until next time, friends … ¡Buen Provecho!
xo, ani

Updated 10/26/21