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Testin’ Tortillas in San Antonio: From Moctezuma to Mass Production

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Admit it: Texans take tortillas for granted. We expect our breakfast taco of papa con huevo to come cradled in a warm, flaky, just slightly chewy flour tortilla. Tacos callejeros should, by birthright, appear on fragrant disks of corn masa, fresh off the griddle — a tradition that survives from pre-Columbian times. How did we get so lucky? (Eat your hearts out, yanquis.)

As recently as the last century, Mexican women, especially in the countryside, struggled to supply their families with the expected, daily supply. According to “Que Vivan Los Tamales,” a treatise on “food and the making of Mexican identity,” ”…a woman cooking for a large family typically spent the entire morning, five or six hours, making tortillas. Work began the night before, when she simmered the corn in a solution of mineral lime to make nixtamal. [She] arose before dawn to grind the corn on the metate…patting tortillas into shape required as much finesse as grinding required strength.” Cooking the tortillas on a comal required equal dexterity — along with toughened fingers.

Meanwhile, in the larger cities, tortilla technology advanced slowly. “Numerous inventors attempted to mechanize the entire process … and build fully automatic factories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Several patents were issued, one of which promised to “redeem the women of our nation from the slavery of the metate.” But as late as the early 1900s, tortillas were still emerging from conveyor belts “in a desiccated, inedible state.” Finally, in 1919, a system that flipped the tortilla to “imitate the turns given on a traditional comal” was perfected — but popular acceptance was far from immediate. It wasn’t until 1946 that the invention of masa harina made industrialization of the corn tortilla truly almost routine (and profitable), finally constituting “a genuine revolution in the lives of Mexican women.”

That takes care of corn, but in central and northern “New Spain,” Spaniards accustomed to bread (and needing fine white flour for communion wafers) had planted wheat. Cultivation of wheat and milling of the grain was “a costly process [compared to corn],” and “in the colony’s early years, before Spaniards established sufficient mills and bakeries, native women prepared wheat in the only manner they knew — as tortillas.” It helped that Spaniards had also brought pigs, which supplied the lard necessary in the production of this, “one of the first examples of Mexico’s hybrid cuisine.” The flour tortillas that come rolling off the conveyor belts at many a local HEB can trace their lineage straight back to Sonora, the birthplace of the current-day staple.

Tortilla Shops to Visit

Adelita’s Tamales & Tortilla Factory
1130 Fresno Drive, (210) 733-5352, adelitatamales.com
Opened in 1938, this operation is family-owned and offers fresh white and yellow corn tortillas in various sizes along with fresh flour tortillas. Take in the show at the window.

Bandera Molino
2619 N. Zarzamora St., (210) 434-0131
Fresh flour tortillas are definitely worth the wait at this shop which is stuffed to the brim with Mexican ingredients, cookware and more.

Bedoy’s Bakery
Multiple locations, bedoysbakery.com
White corn tortillas and pita-like tortillas de harina are what’s in store at this San Antonio staple that’s delighted with their pan dulces for more than 50 years.

H-E-B
Multiple locations, heb.com
Flour tortillas lurk in the corners of most of the bakeries at your local H-E-B, and convenience can’t be beat. Neither can their selection of corn tortillas (and the elusive nopal!).

La Michoacana Meat Market
Multiple locations, lamichoacanameatmarket.com
La Michoacana Meat Market carries yellow and white corn tortillas made in their Houston plant that retain all their freshness after being delivered.

Sanitary Tortilla Company
623 Urban Loop, (210) 226-9209, sanitarytortillacompany.com
Legendary tortillas come from legendary places, the most rustic and corn-tasting of the bunch during our haphazard taste-test, Sanitary’s tortillas can’t be beat.

Los Angeles Tortilleria & Restaurant
300 N. Zarzamora St., (210) 435-2400
A favorite that brings in fans from across San Anto with their tortillas, tamales and tacos, Los Angeles won us over with their white and red corn tortillas and their flaky and flavorful flour renditions.

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