Flat Delicious: Toothsome and Texture are Key to Authentic Mexican Tortillas
I remember when I was first taught to enjoy a tortilla. I must have been 4 years old, and the director of my bilingual daycare pulled me aside during snack time. She took a warm corn tortilla from underneath a cloth napkin and held it out flat in her hand.
“You put the butter on like this,” she said, spreading a pat of butter over one side. “And then you roll it up.”
She rolled it into the shape of a cigar and handed it to me. I was one of the only white girls at the daycare, and I thought maybe this was my rite of passage into eating Mexican food the way Mexicans do. I took a bite. It was soft, toasty and tasted faintly like grilled corn on the cob.
I still eat tortillas like this, but I’ve since realized that not all tortillas taste and feel the same. Flour tortillas are pale in color and stretchy; some corn tortillas are flat and dense, others soft and crispy. So it’s after I’ve devoured three tortillas at El Molino Central that I ask the owner, Karen Taylor, what she thinks a good tortilla should taste like.
“It should be toothsome, but it’s not so much about the taste, it’s more about the texture,” she says. I take a bite of my fourth tortilla and nod—this is a woman who knows about tortillas.
El Molino Central, a quaint and colorful Mexican restaurant in Sonoma’s Boyes Hot Springs, is Taylor’s second business. Her first is Primavera Tamales, well known in the Bay Area for its gourmet tamales and tortillas, and for its breakfast stand at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Primavera sells to over 150 stores, and their stand at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market has had a steady stream of regulars lining up to buy chips, salsas and tortillas since the company’s founding in 1992.
What makes Primavera’s tortillas and tamales distinctive is that most of them are made with stone-ground organic corn, a process that dates back to ancient times in Latin America and is becoming increasingly rare.
At 8:30am the day I visit El Molino Central, I watch Elva Rios, a thin, soft-spoken woman with glasses, start to make masa, the corn dough used to make tortillas, tamales and other staples of Mexican meals. She’s been working at Primavera for over 10 years, and two days a week she works at El Molino Central. There are two large pots already on the stove, one full of simmering chicken, the other of black beans.
Light filters in through the windows onto the yellow and blue tiled floor. The screen door lets in a warm morning breeze, and the scent of fresh coffee begins to fill the air as the barista prepares for the morning rush. If it wasn’t Blue Bottle Coffee, I could almost be in Mexico.
The corn—yellow, plump and glistening—has been sitting in a tank overnight after it was cooked with slaked lime, or calcium hydroxide, also known as cal. For centuries, Central Americans and Mexicans have used the same cooking process, called nixtamalization. It softens the corn for grinding, easing the workload when making masa—which was especially important for the women who used to grind it by hand and stone.
There are nutritional benefits for nixtamaling, too. The alkaline quality of the cal improves the balance between good and bad proteins in the corn, upping its calcium and releasing niacin, which we know as vitamin B3. When Europeans imported corn from the New World they didn’t import the nixtamalization process, and this omission led to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies in areas where corn became a major food crop.
Rios scoops out pitchers of corn, washing off the yellowness of the cal and adding fresh water. The corn goes into a grinder, and out comes wet, buff-colored dough. She lifts up the top of the grinder to show me the stone wheel inside: That’s el molino—the grinder, or literally, the mill. I tell her that I think it’s kind of magical; she smiles and piles in another scoop of corn.
It takes her about an hour to make enough masa for the restaurant’s daily demand, as well as some to spare for tomorrow’s tamales. As orders come in she presses balls of masa using a wooden tortilla press and places them on a hot griddle. They puff up and I get nervous they’re going to burst, but she takes them off just in time and they deflate into soft discs with brown spots here and there, and slightly uneven edges.
In Rios’ hometown, a village on the Oaxacan coast, people bring their own corn to a molino or tortilleria (tortilla mill) to have it ground into masa the same way it’s done at El Molino Central. Until recently, this was how all of Mexico made and purchased tortillas. To keep consumer tortilla prices low and corn farmers in business, a tortilla support program administered by the federal government regulated the tortilla industry, starting from the corn harvest all the way to the consumer. The program bought subsidized corn from farmers and sold it to small tortilla makers for a low price, who then made affordable tortillas and masa for people to take home. But in the early 90s, a corn-flour manufacturer called Maseca entered the market, touting its processed rehydrated corn flour as an easy and fast alternative to making fresh masa. While most Mexicans initially rejected the taste of corn flour, Maseca persuaded the government to alter its tortilla program by limiting the amount of corn that could go to traditional tortillerias, and allowing the growth in the market to be filled by their corn flour. Small tortilla factories, unable to get quality or sufficient corn, closed their doors or were enticed to switch from masabased production to maseca flour production. As Maseca’s influence grew, many Mexicans were no longer eating the fresh corn products like generations before them.
“Preserving a tradition is part of what we’re doing,” said Taylor. “It’s strange because this new generation probably won’t be able to make tortillas by hand, and they most likely won’t know anything about corn grinding.”
Just as tortilla grinders became increasingly obsolete in Mexico, Taylor started looking for one.
Tall, blond and originally from Southern California, she got her start making Mexican food nearly 30 years ago as a prep cook for a Sonoma restaurant. Inspired by Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico, she began experimenting with recipes for the restaurant and making salsas. She traveled to Mexico City, Oaxaca and Michoacán, deepening her knowledge of regional cuisines and taking classes with Kennedy (the two are now friends).
With the help of her friend (and now kitchen manager) Maurilia Pineda, she rented a night shift at a commercial kitchen and the duo started to package salsas and then tamales. When given the opportunity to sell their wares at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Taylor set out to find a grinder.
“So I went to a restaurant and this man was selling his giant grinder for $2,000,” she said. “It was way too heavy, so we had a beer, had lunch and then got seven people to get it into my dad’s truck.”
The county health inspector had never seen a soaking tank or a grinder before. Similarly, Taylor had little experience with a grinder, and relied on her employees, some of whom had worked at tortilla factories in Mexico, to help determine the right mixture of cal, soaking time and other variables.
Now, from outside the Primavera factory on the Sonoma Highway (the factory is not open to the public) you’ll hear the sounds of masa being patted and flattened, trays of steaming tamales being stacked on top of the stove, and chatter from about 20 women at their cooking stations. At the tamale station, women open translucent cornhusks, fill them with a thick layer of masa, and add a scoop of filling.
When I visit, it’s butternut squash, corn and green chiles. Bowls of spinach, mushrooms, zucchinis and roasted tomatoes sit on shelves around the factory, all sourced from farm stands at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market or other local farms. Primavera’s corn source has evolved over the years, although it’s always organic and American-grown. Taylor used to have it grown in Iowa, but says there were too many inconsistencies and she is now looking into working with a new farm in California.
Behind the factory driveway there’s a small garden of rare Mexican herbs. When I tell Taylor about a dish I had in Oaxaca that used one of the herbs I see sprouting from a planter, she immediately brings me into the factory so we can find one of her employees from that region and ask what she knows about the dish and how to make it. This is how it seems to go with Taylor and her staff (most of whom have been with the company for longer than a decade). They collaborate on dishes, many of the women contributing regional specialties from their childhood kitchens.
“I have no shame in saying that all the recipes aren’t mine. Why should I have a better recipe than one of the girls?” said Taylor. “I didn’t grow up in Mexico with a mother teaching me how to make something!”
The result is a menu that fits traditional Mexican recipes into Californian seasons—and on Saturday mornings at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza, it creates a line that extends around the corner.
Taylor opened El Molino Central as a way to bring the success of the farmers’ market stands back to the neighborhood where Primavera operates. She envisioned a local tortilleria that doubled as a casual restaurant with good, affordable food. Now in its third year of business, the menu changes a few times per season, visitors become more frequent each month, but the masa remains a constant. The small white building with teal trim and a Spanish-style roof fits right in with the taco trucks and Mexican grocery stores that line the main drag of Boyes Hot Springs.
“If we didn’t have local Mexican people coming in I would have considered this a complete failure,” Taylor says as she looks out at the restaurant patio and ties on her apron. “But they come, and they come for the masa. They buy hundreds of tortillas at a time. And that’s what I wanted. This is the neighborhood molino.”