COVER STORY : HANDMADE : Old-fashioned tortillas are patted out at a few local markets, much to the customers’ pleasure.
Standing beside a simple wooden table topped with a mound of yellow corn dough, Teresa Valles looks like a sculptor creating art from clay. It’s an apt image.
Her hands move so smoothly, so knowingly, that not a movement is wasted as she makes dozen after dozen of tortillas the old-fashioned way, clapping her hands in the pat-pat-pat method that was the standard before inventors made machines capable of punching out hundreds of tortillas in just a few minutes.
The machine-made tortilla, first introduced in the 1940s, is the standard now, and finding someone like Teresa Valles isn’t easy. As Steve Luna, her boss at Carrillo’s Tortilleria in San Fernando, says: “It’s a lost art.”
Valles offers her own description, which also explains the rarity of her craft.
“Es trabajoso,” she says. It’s a lot of work.
It’s a lot of work just finding a place where tortillas are still made by hand, whether looking in the San Fernando Valley or even parts of Mexico. In the Valley region, Carrillo’s is the major purveyor of the handmade tortilla, with restaurants in Canoga Park, Agoura, Santa Clarita and Simi Valley, besides its flagship store where Valles claps away the mornings.
In nearby Sylmar there’s Tortilleria Salas, a combination tortilla factory, deli and market that makes fresh tortillas by machine but also produces some handmade flour tortillas that sell out early weekdays. Handmade corn tortillas are offered on weekends to go with menudo, the meaty stew that is a Sunday morning tradition in many Mexican families. Again, they sell out early.
The Cocina Mexicana in Canoga Park makes hundreds of corn tortillas--no flour--by hand each day, selling them by the dozen and serving them with meals. The market serves a mostly Latino clientele, says manager Ezequiel de Luna, but also draws lots of non-Latinos who have been attracted to the back counter by the sound of women softly clapping the tortilla dough.
The sound and sight of the tortilla makers often encourage a sale--especially if the customer only knows machine-made brands. “As soon as they see her making them, they want to order some,” de Luna says.
In Pacoima, there’s Lenchita’s, a restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard that sells handmade tortillas by the dozen or serves them with most meals. Lenchita’s has the feel of a genuine Mexican working-class diner, with simple but hearty fare.
You won’t hear much English at Lenchita’s--or other tortillerias--but requesting tortillas de harina (ah-REE-nah) will get you flour and tortillas de maiz (mai-EEZ) will get you corn.
In all these places, the tortilla-makers use simple tools--a bucket of water, the corn meal or masa and their hands. Valles demonstrated the technique on an early Wednesday morning recently, before most diners had arrived for breakfast.
She lightly wets her right hand in the water and then, without really looking, grabs just the right amount from the mound of masa , which has been prepared by cooks who boil and grind the corn. She quickly forms a ball by rolling the dough against the table with a circular motion of the hand.
Then the real hard part begins, and she makes it look effortless.
She pats her hands together and the tortilla emerges, surprisingly round and uniformly thick. She lays it on a hot griddle where other tortillas are already cooking. She flips them once by hand before tossing the finished tortillas into a plastic tub. Each one takes just a few minutes.
Her mother taught her the art when she was about 9 years old, Valles says. She would burn her hands back then but long ago learned how to avoid the griddle. She can even repair a tortilla that comes out poorly, plugging any holes with a pinch of masa.
Originally from Patzcuaro, a lakeside town in the Mexican mountain state of Michoacan, Valles came to the United States about 23 years ago and has been making an untold number of tortillas at Carrillo’s ever since. Valles says she can turn out about 80 dozen in a few hours.
Tortilla-making is piecework--they get 45 cents a dozen--but many of the women also work regular hours at Carrillo’s or take off for other jobs after finishing their tortillas, Luna says.
On weekdays she’s joined by one or two other tortilla-makers. On weekends, Carrillo’s uses about eight. The restaurant will go through about 80 hefty 100-pound sacks of corn a week, says Luna, whose grandparents, Emelio and Guadalupe Carrillo, founded the restaurant in 1943. In a typical week, the women will produce close to 1,000 dozen.
The Carrillo’s tortillas--like most handmade--are thicker and grittier than the store-bought brands and are perhaps an acquired taste for palettes accustomed to ultra-thin and delicate flour tortillas. The family used to sell handmade flour tortillas but now reluctantly makes them by machine. Both corn and flour are served with meals and can be ordered by the dozen.
“You just can’t find younger women who do them,” Luna says. His mother, Amelia Carrillo Luna, was not pleased with the innovation. “She didn’t like it at all,” he says. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t like it at all.”
Still, the family had no choice, he says. “It was just hard to find the women.”
Not that the tortilla is an endangered species. There are about 300 tortilla manufacturers nationwide, and about 100 of them are members of the Encino-based Tortilla Industry Assn., a trade group that, in Spanish at least, has an appropriately maternal acronym, TIA or tia for aunt.
In 1990, the last year figures were available, the tortilla industry had a sales volume of $1.5 billion, says Irwin Steinberg, director of the 2 1/2-year-old organization. By 1995, he says, sales volume is expected to reach $3 billion.
Aside from introducing high-tech equipment--major producers can make 3,000 dozen an hour--modern tortilla manufacturers are experimenting with variations never envisioned in Valles’ hometown.
There are whole-wheat tortillas and low-fat tortillas. Vegetable oils have replaced lard as an ingredient in flour tortillas. Some companies are trying to develop the no-fat tortilla, Steinberg says, and a few years ago one company flirted with tortillas of oat bran.
“I don’t think it was very successful,” he says.
TIA’s aim is to promote the use of tortillas and educate those not versed in folding, filling and heating. “Back East is sort of like virgin territory,” he says. The group also advocates using tortillas in innovative ways.
Steinberg was surprised and delighted when, on a recent business trip to Philadelphia, he was served a take-off on eggs Benedict--poached egg, hollandaise sauce and all--served on a whole-wheat tortilla instead of the standard English muffin.
“That was marvelous as far as I was concerned,” he says.
The tortilla smothered in hollandaise, no doubt, was perfectly round and perfectly flat. That’s not the case with handmade varieties, but that’s part of their charm--like the difference between homemade and factory-produced bread. Even so, a good tortilla-maker can produce dozens by hand that are surprisingly uniform.
Part of the trick, Luna says, is to work the masa on the edges of the palm, not the center where the dough can collect in a lump. Novices looking for work at Carrillo’s give themselves away by producing tortillas with bumpy centers.
“They say they know how, but you can tell right away,” Luna says.
It’s not surprising they like to try, however. It does look easy. Customers occasionally ask to play with the masa and schoolchildren, who often take field trips to Carrillo’s, always want to pat away in hopes of making the perfect tortilla.
Valles obliges, gives them lumps of dough and lets them pat-pat-pat. So how do the tortillas come out?
Valles just laughs and smiles. “Todos chuecos, “ she says.
Heating Tortillas: A User’s Guide
Tortillas were not made for toasters, microwaves or ovens. Using a gas range, set a flame on low and place the tortilla directly on the burner. This won’t burn down the house. After a few seconds, flip the tortilla by grabbing any edge away from the flame. Flip a few more times until the tortilla is warm but not stiff. Tortillas can also be heated the same way on an ungreased griddle. Don’t put them on the burners of an electric range. That turns tortillas into parchment.
Where to Go
These restaurants and markets sell handmade tortillas. A dozen costs about $1.20, depending on location. Location: Tortilleria Salas, 12443 1/2 San Fernando Road, Sylmar. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call: (818) 362-3817. Location: Carrillo’s Tortilleria, 1242 Pico St., San Fernando. Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Call: (818) 365-1636. Location: Lenchita’s, 13612 1/2 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima. Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call: (818) 899-2623. Location: Cocina Mexicana, 21001 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call: (818) 992-3239. These restaurants don’t sell handmade tortillas by the dozen, but serve them with meals. Location: La Parrilla Restaurant, 19265 Roscoe Blvd., Northridge. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Call: (818) 993-7773. Location: La Parrilla Restaurant, 19601 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Handmade tortillas served with meals Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. Call: (818) 708-7422. Location: Pocos Mexican Restaurant, 20917 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call: (818) 340-6546.
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