In Search of the Supreme Tortilla

A college friend of mine who hailed from England harbored both disgust and distrust toward burritos. He thought of them as seeping, seething sacks of food, secretive and primitive in an unappetizing way. I, however, was thrilled to discover such culinary delights and thought of them as one of the many advantages to receiving an education in sunny Southern California, which was worlds away from my Midwestern and East Coast upbringing.

I decided to try my own hand at these Mexican pleasures. I knew that quality ingredients were the secret to culinary success, so I set about finding the best of what I perceived to be the backbone of Mexican cooking: tortillas, both corn and flour.

My first stop was El Indio Restaurant and Tortilleria, which is owned by Eva S. Pesquieira and her husband. She told me that the place was started by her mother- and father-in-law in 1940. They had one employee and made all the tortillas by hand. Now, the corn tortilla machine pulsates from 4 a.m. until noon, churning out 2000 dozen tortillas a day, 5000 on high-production days. The flour tortillas are purchased from a local producer, Circle Foods, which also makes them fresh daily. El Indio doesn’t have the space for the machinery required to make flour tortillas.

Eva enlightened me as to the ingredients and procedure: “The tortillas consist of corn, lime, and water. We get high quality dried corn from the northern part of California. We cook and grind it here. The corn has to be cooked just right — a cooking time of 45 minutes, stirring several times. If it’s undercooked, you will get chunks of corn in your tortilla. Once cooked, the corn must sit at least 24 hours to cool; otherwise, you will get a bubble-gum substance when you grind it instead of masa — cooked ground corn. The masa is then put into a feeder machine. The masa comes through the feeder in such a way that it forms two tortillas at a time and cuts them. They then fall onto a conveyer belt that sends them into the oven. After they travel through the oven, they go to another conveyer belt to cool. Then they are packed into bags and sold by the dozen ($.75).”

Eva invited me into the kitchen to see the machinery in motion. Within minutes, sweat began to bead on my brow and my stomach rumbled. The oven has three tiers; I see flames licking the edge of the belt. “It’s a high heat; it cooks very quickly, probably 30 seconds.” Eva handed me a warm tortilla slathered with butter. My stomach was placated by the soft yet hearty morsel. What makes this tortilla so wonderful?

“It is hot and fresh, with no preservatives. The tortillas you purchase in the store have preservatives, because they have to sit on shelves for who knows how long. Sometimes, when you heat grocery-store tortillas, they will have a funny smell, and that comes from the preservatives. Also, the quality and preparation of the corn makes a difference. Some tortillas are made with powdered corn as opposed to ground, and that affects the consistency. The tortilla will feel very thin, kind of like a potato chip.”

When you get the tortillas home from the shop, “you can heat them up two ways: on the griddle or in the microwave, inside a tortilla warmer. Sometimes, I put a napkin in the tortilla warmer, and that locks the moisture in — they come out steaming.”

I thanked Eva and grabbed some corn and flour tortillas (9˝, $1.69 a dozen, 6˝, $1.10 a dozen). On my way home, I dropped into Henry’s and Vons to pick up some tortillas for comparison. Wanting to give El Indio some serious competition, I also stopped at Gabriel’s Tortilleria on Imperial Avenue, which I had heard was home to the best tortillas in San Diego. I also happened upon the La Mesa Farmer’s Market and picked up another subject for my test.

Patrick grimaced when he saw me stagger in with an armful of tortillas. “Plain tortillas are like plain pizza crust,” he complained. “What’s the point?” But I wanted to taste the pure tortilla, unobscured by guacamole and cheese.

We started with the fresh corn tortillas. Gabriel’s ($1.10 for a three-pound package) had the most intense corn smell and the heartiest golden color. They also had the best taste and a silky texture. El Indio was a close second, also having a strong, fresh corn taste. The La Mesa Farmer’s Market tortillas ($1.50 a dozen) were made by Quintessa. They lacked any golden color, literally paling in comparison, and had the least corn taste.

After savoring the fresh tortillas, I dreaded my task of tasting the grocery-store versions. Henry’s offered La Fe ($.59 a dozen or three dozen for $1.39) and their own brand ($.99 a dozen). Vons carried Mission (three dozen for $1.25), Guerrero (three dozen for $1.14), and the Vons brand ($.50 a dozen). All hit a sour note in the nostrils, except the Henry’s, which smelled of toasted corn. The La Fe were the softest of the bunch, with a light lime and corn taste. Guerrero’s were much the same, but with less corn taste. The best we could say about them was that they were mild and not offensive. The rest offended. Henry’s was mealy and tasteless. Mission was sweet upon hitting the tongue and then backlashed with an acid-limey taste. And Vons was, as Patrick put it, “kinda tart, nasty, terrible.”

Moving on to the fresh flour tortillas. Gabriel’s (made with lard, $1 a dozen) had a smooth, velvety feel and a sweet shortening smell. They were chewy and rich, with a bready complexity — maybe a little too bready. The La Mesa Farmer’s Market (made with soybean oil, $1.25 a dozen) had an oily smell, a decent taste, and a dry, crumbly texture. El Indio’s (produced by Circle Foods), made with canola oil, were our favorite, with a slightly tangy, salty taste. A good midpoint between the other two.

The store-bought flour tortillas ranged in price from $1.19 a dozen to $1.85 a dozen. The Vons, Mission, Guerrero, and La Fe all had similar textures, tastes, and smells. All were acceptable. The Henry’s, however, had a decent taste, but were dry, crumbly, and too thick. Henry’s also carried a flour tortilla made with lard by Miguel Gonzales ($1.09 a dozen). I had hoped that it would be the king of flavor in the store-bought court. I was disappointed to find it was dry, despite its heavy animal-fat taste, and had a bitter edge.

I decided to call Circle Foods, which produced our favorite fresh flour tortilla. Gus Franco told me that he had 32 different recipes for tortillas, to meet different customers’ requirements. “Some like it made with lard, for taste reasons, but those tortillas can be heavily saturated with fat. Most go with canola oil, because the taste is still very good and it is healthier for you. We mainly distribute to restaurants, but you can buy them retail at Costco [two dozen for $1.89, under the Porkyland label]. A flour tortilla consists of flour, water, oil, and then a leavening agent, like baking soda, and salt. We make different tortillas with lard, canola oil, or soybean oil, and then we have them either hand-stretched or machine -pressed.

“All the tortillas start off as dough balls. For the hand-stretched, the dough ball goes onto a roller plate, which flattens it into a semi-oval shape — not quite round. It then slides off onto a hot plate. At this point, two girls grab it and finish stretching it into a round. For the press, again, it starts as a dough ball. It is fed into a press, which forms it into a round.” Like the corn tortillas, they are then baked in a three-tiered oven with different temperature settings, ranging between 300 and 600 degrees, for 25 to 30 seconds.

What’s the difference? “A hand-stretched tortilla is basically a table tortilla that you serve on the side. But if you’re making something like a burrito, with a lot of juice, you want a plate-pressed tortilla. It’s more resilient and less likely to tear on you.”

Later that evening, I prepared chicken enchiladas with fresh corn tortillas from Gabriel’s and El Indio. The corn smell engulfed the kitchen as the tortillas sizzled in the oiled skillet. Patrick, anxious to sink his teeth into one, badgered me to know when they would be ready. After supper was finished, we agreed that the dish was substantially better than it has been in times past, when I had used grocery-store tortillas. The fresh tortillas seemed much more present amid the sauce and chicken. I have been converted; I will never go back to grocery-store tortillas.

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