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Rise of the Machine

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Machinery cuts disks from sheets of thinly rolled dough to create San Antonio's staple tortilla. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)
Rise of the Machine

By Ron Bechtol


SA's Sanitary Tortillas is the oldest tortilla manufacturer in the U.S.

"Delgaditas or gruesas?" This is the kind of question you might get if you decided to forego making your own tortillas for the expedient of purchasing them from one of San Antonio's stalwarts such as Sanitary Tortillas. Established in 1925, Sanitary was the first manufacturing company in the United States to make tortillas by machine. The original maquinas (the Smithsonian is interested in them, I'm told) plus several replicas are used daily for the thick, table-quality corn tortillas that Jesse Villareal sells to more than 100 restaurants and 30 schools around town. Villareal uses 2,500 pounds of dried

Since 1925, Sanitary Tortillas has been producing tortillas with the maquina.
corn a day ("The best corn in the world comes from west of San Antonio," he claims) to produce upwards of 90,000 tortillas. Aside from some contemplated mechanization in the corn-cooking end of the operation, he plans to keep making them the old way well into the future.

Although it hardly looks high-tech, a new machine produces thinner tortillas used for tacos and chips. It's faster and quieter, but an on-the-spot taste test makes it clear that the older machines produce a superior tortilla: They are not only thicker, but much more moist, and better tasting, even if the masa is exactly the same. "We don't use any preservatives, so `the table tortilla` has a short shelf life," says Villareal, "but that's why we're open seven days."

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Romelia Garcia, an assembly line worker at Sanitary, speeds along the production of tortillas early in the morning.
Although most of their trade is commercial, you can still walk up to the counter at Sanitary Tortillas and order. Fresh tortillas - thick ones, thin ones, and the red ones destined for enchiladas - are kept warm in large, insulated chests behind the counter. (You can also pick up a tortilla press for $6.99 just in case the mood strikes.) On weekends, there used to be lines out the door all the way to the sidewalk, recounts Villareal - but that's before the Near West Side neighborhood was subjected to urban renewal. Having survived Cortez, European influences, and city planners with amazing resiliency, the tortilla seems able to take on all comers - and, in fact, to be poised for a renaissance in light of the country's growing Hispanic population. •


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