In the competitive world of East Los Angeles tortillerias, where entrepreneurs fight for customers block by block, Francisco Ramírez and his La Princesita towered above them all.
The native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, sold to restaurants years before his rivals. His earthy, dark-yellow corn and fluffy flour tortillas became the base for hundreds of tacos and burritos across the Southland. And Ramírez also encouraged his children to modernize the family business, ensuring it a place in Southern California’s recent tortilla renaissance.
Ramírez died last week of a heart attack, according to his family. He was 64.
La Princesita dates back to 1972, when Ramírez took control of his brother’s struggling tortilleria at 18. Supermarkets didn’t stock tortillas in those days, and the Northgates and Vallartas of today were still a decade away. So Ramírez initially made his money selling only from his storefront, on what was then Brooklyn Avenue but is now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
A small machine rolled out tortillas for retail; an employee patted them out by hand for customers who visited the mercadito for tacos filled with carnitas and fresh chicharrónes. Business remained relatively modest and local until 1985, when Ramírez installed an industrial-sized tortilla machine that allowed him to ramp up production and begin distribution.
But even as operations expanded, Ramirez always insisted that La Princesita make corn tortillas the traditional way: Employees nixtamalized corn and ground the softened kernels between stones every day.
He never used Maseca, the masa harina that now accounts for about half of the tortillas produced in Mexico and is in the DNA of Guerrero, the top-selling corn tortilla brand in the United States.
Making a good tortilla was personal for her dad, said his daughter, Monica, 38.
“Sometimes, when he was growing up, a tortilla con sal (sprinkled with salt) was my dad’s only meal,” she said. “So if that was going to be the only thing people could afford, then he wanted to make sure it was the best quality possible.”
In addition to tortillas, Ramírez earned respect from the East L.A. community for his generosity. He once donated dozens of trees to help beautify the hometown of his wife in Zacatecas.
Every year, he’d provide tortillas and meat for the carnivals held by Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in East Los Angeles, where his children attended elementary school. Ramírez frequently bought uniforms for the sports teams that his sons played on, and ended up contributing so much money to youth leagues and parks around East Los Angeles “that you’d see the Princesita logo all around,” said his son, Francisco Jr., 32.
Ramírez stepped back from La Princesita some years ago, and let his children take over. They had all worked at the store growing up — the girls as cashiers, while the boys learned to cut meat. Monica started Eastside Tacos, the family’s catering business; Francisco Jr. concentrated on working with a new generation of Mexican American chefs — Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos and Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, among others — who bought the family’s tortillas for their restaurants or commissioned La Princesita to make tortillas to their specifications.
“In the beginning, when I didn’t have flow- through cash for tortillas on any given day, they would write my name down and I’d pay the next time I came in,” said Avila, who still uses La Princesita tortillas to fry his tostadas and crunchy tacos. “He created a community through his stores.”
The acclaim brought La Princesita its first-ever mainstream press; in “L.A. Mexicano,” author Bill Esparza wrote that they had “put the raza in the masa.” The newfound fame pleased Ramírez, “but he didn’t linger on it,” said his daughter Mavel, 37. “He didn’t care if you were someone in the neighborhood or a high-end restaurant — you were a customer, and that’s what mattered.”
The family plans to continue La Princesita and its sister store, La Blanquita in El Monte.
“Since our tortillas were sold in our community, other people grew up on that,” Francisco Jr. said. “So it’s important to maintain the integrity of them.”
And though he was informally retired, Ramírez never really left his tortillerias. His only real splurges were trips to casinos to play the slots and to dinner at Olive Garden with his wife, Amalia Ramírez Perez.
“He liked to drive around the stores and talk to workers and customers,” Monica said. “All of his employees were his friends. He’d tell them after a shift, ‘Let’s go hang out together.’”
“He was the definition of YOLO,” Mavel added. “He’d say, ‘No me voy a quedar con ganas de nada’ (I’m not going to leave with any regrets). And he did everything he ever wanted to do.”