The Ultimate Quest

From hand-made to machine-made, tortillas are the backbone of San Antonio's culinary palette. Fidensia Sanchez, 56, creates handmade tortillas at James' Café on Woodlawn. Sanchez'practiced hands have been creating tortillas for 17 years.
The Ultimate Quest

By Ron Bechtol

Searching for the best tortillas in San Antonio

With Mexican restaurants on every other corner, it's a sure bet most San Antonians have a favorite source for corn and flour tortillas. The odds are very good that Sanitary Tortillas may be the manufacturer among those restaurants that don't make their own tortillas - at least for the corn version. Assuming they are served on the day they're delivered, they will taste like the real thing. But no matter how authentic the machine-made model, there's still nothing like a tortilla of either persuasion made to order. Old standby restaurants such as Blanco Café and the Cristan's chain have become known for their flour tortillas, but one restaurant chain, Alamo Café, has used the machine-made flour tortilla as a thematic center of attention. Despite the visual drama and entertainment value of the tortilla as edible assembly-line item, there's more appeal in the tortilla made by hand in front of your eyes. James' Café on North St. Mary's does just that.

Fidencia Sanchez has been making both flour and corn tortillas by hand at James' under an arch that proclaims "tortillas como su casa" since the restaurant's opening day, and she has the process down pat. The corn tortillas, made from a Maseca mix, are thick, aromatic, and irresistible; more than just an accompaniment to a meal, they become an equal partner. But the flour tortillas get equal attention. A phalanx of dough balls sits proofing at her right hand, ready to be rolled to order and cooked to a blistery perfection. Holding the flour tortilla in one hand, before slathering on the refrieds, feels like donning an old baseball glove on a warm, summer day, comforting and nostalgic. But the analogy ends there, for the tortilla is tender, delicate, and not the least bit leathery.

A kind of leathery chewiness is the biggest complaint about many of the city's flour tortillas, but at Las Salsas on San Pedro, the house-made flour tortillas are beautifully big, dappled with toasty spots, and subtly wheaty. (For knock-out wheat taste, the whole grain models at Twin Sisters take the cake.) But here the corn version sets off alarms: They are moist, tender, white-corn pale, and perfectly suited for some of the restaurant's carnitas. Or for just eating with nothing but salsa.

Such is the improvement of the tortilla at local restaurants recently, that some examples that once topped the list have slid - if only slightly. The corn tortillas at Rosario's were once my standard of excellence, and though they're still head and shoulders above the norm - thick and fragrant, with a somewhat spongy texture - they lack the sensory immediacy of the new standard-bearers. Rosario's flour tortillas are tender, but a little neutral in taste.

Tortillas at Alamo Café are made using several machines.
Blanca Aldaco admits that for years she shunned her flour tortillas in favor of the corn - made with Maseca, "very hot" water, and a little melted butter - until now. About a month ago, a new machine - and a new attitude - appeared at Aldaco's. Carolina, the Tortilla Director, continues to make all the corn tortillas herself and currently supervises the making of the flour version - complete with "tortilla enhancer," which turns out to be mostly baking powder. "Del comal a la mesa," says Aldaco, and the attitude results in corn tortillas that are más suave than some, but not as thick or perfumed, with a hint of butter that adds an elusive flavor component. The flour tortillas are paler than I like, but the taste is a little more complex.

Whether the enhancer is hand work or a miracle of modern chemistry (we prefer the former, but don't deny the power of the latter), the standards have been set high in the Alamo City. Now, if we could just send all restaurant owners and consumers to Central Mexico for a taste of the exquisitely intense, indigenous original. •

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