Tortillas to write home about
They’re the size of a medium pizza, as thin as a Communion wafer, and they melt in your mouth.
They are tortillas — and they are the driving force behind pilgrimages to a tiny Mexican restaurant on Tucson’s west side. And for many pilgrims, it’s impossible to leave with just a dozen.
A woman once shipped the tortillas to her son 5,000 miles away — in Japan. Recent destinations include Texas, Colorado and Wyoming. One family from San Diego lugs between 10 and 30 dozen home after each Tucson sojourn. People have purchased more than 50 dozen at once — all for destinations outside Arizona.
“If we traveled like the tortillas do, we’d be all over the world,” said Martina Egurrola, whose mother opened St. Mary’s Mexican Food in 1968.
Chances are, you won’t find this tortilla anywhere else.
And St. Mary’s Mexican Food is one of a handful of places in southern Arizona that still make the product, a gigantic variation of the flour tortilla found in Mexican restaurants anywhere else. It evokes another time and an insider’s knowledge of a unique slice of Mexican culture. Even for Mexican Americans, the tortilla isn’t ordinary.
Tucson native Amanda Villaveces once talked up the tortillas so much that she had to jam a backpack full of them on her journey back to California.
“You would never imagine that a bunch of tortillas would be that heavy,” said the Berkeley preschool teacher. “But it was worth it.”
The secret to the crepe-like tortillas, which are about 15 inches in diameter, isn’t a unique ingredient. It’s the method in which they are prepared.
Unlike many other tortilla makers in the area, the restaurant’s owners have never switched to a machine. Instead, they make the tortillas by hand, a practice that is fading with older generations and the advent of tortilla machines.
Children learned by default, and also because it was fun to play with the dough. “Daughters got taught,” said Luis Salazar, the son of the current owners, Jose and Maria Salazar. “Usually they learn it when they are really, really young.”
As fewer people learn the art of making tortillas by hand, Salazar said, the large tortillas become more popular for the area families of Mexican descent. The restaurant is located in a working-class neighborhood dotted with other Mexican restaurants, a liquor store and a raspado, or Mexican frozen fruit drink stand. Paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary can be seen on the sides of buildings and in front yards.
At six each morning, as many as three restaurant workers prepare the prized tortillas in their small kitchen, where large white tubs of red and green chile con carne sit on silver counters.
The tortilla ingredients include flour, animal and vegetable shortening, salt and water. After it’s mixed, each ball of dough, which can’t be too rubbery or too soft, is separated and left to sit. The stretching process doesn’t involve machines or rollers. Instead it involves stretching the dough, or masa, in the fingertips, forearms and hands. Then it’s thrown on a large black skillet, heated to 600 degrees, where the tortilla forms tiny bubbles and turns a light golden color.
“You can shine a light through them, no problem,” Salazar said.
The restaurant, an old converted bar with wooden tables and plastic folding chairs, is anything but flashy. Customers savor the traditional home-style Sonoran cooking, such as chiles rellenos, refried beans and rice. A single tortilla accompanies each meal.
The restaurant has been open since 1968, but hasn’t always been in the same location. The first could only hold three people at a time.
Egurrola, one of seven children, all of whom help out at the restaurant, said she remembers waking up to the smell of tortillas in La Mesa, Sonora, but never realized they’d become such a hit in Tucson.
“Whatever you can put into it, people have eaten with it,” Salazar said.
Over the holidays, people order dozens of tortillas for family gatherings. One man is known for wrapping his tamales in them. People love tortillas with Thanksgiving dinner, Egurrola said. Sometimes, quarrels erupt over the last dozen.
“It’s always a problem keeping up with them,” she said.
But Villaveces, the preschool teacher, hasn’t ever had a problem. She and her husband are planning a trip to Tucson soon for the thin treat, which is responsible for an occasional bout of homesickness.
“We will definitely be returning with a bunch of tortillas,” she said. But after bringing back that one backpack of tortillas for friends, she must buy extra tortillas for her fellow “addicts.”
She hasn’t ever had the restaurant’s other food.