The Lowly Tortilla
The tortilla is the soul of Mexico. Whenever I arrive back in home after a trip abroad, the first thing I long for is the fragrant aroma of freshly made tortillas. According to culinary historian José Iturriaga, it is the only pre-conquest food still eaten in unadulterated form today--all other dishes are a fusion of outside ingredients and cooking techniques.
The tortilla, originally called by the Mexicas tlaxcalli, or “cooked thing”, is traditionally made by soaking corn in water and lime, a process called nixtamalización. Originally ground on a metate of volcanic stone and patted out by hand, nowadays most tortillas are produced by machine, but the end product is the same. Tortillas made of locally grown and prepared masa (dough) and pressed by hand are far superior to those spit out by machines. The qualities to look for in a good tortilla are elasticity (the ability to fold without breaking), aroma, and of course, taste: not too strong as to overwhelm other food flavors. Although yellow corn is more nutritious, white corn is superior in texture and flavor.
Nowadays, many tortillas in Mexico are made of factory processed corn flour from large scale industrial farms, using inferior, genetically modified varieties of corn--much of it imported from the United States. George W. Bush’s government approved legislation allowing free import of these products, underpricing Mexican farmers and threatening production of traditional criollo, or heirloom varieties of seed.
Fortunately, in Mexico City, good handmade tortillas are still available in street and indoor markets, as well as in many restaurants. When I eat in a Mexican restaurant, the first thing I try is the tortilla, and my judgment of the place goes from there. An exquisitely flavorful tortilla, exuding an earthy bouquet of corn with a residue of smoky aroma from the comal (griddle) where it was roasted and a slightly elastic texture, is what I look for. Like bread in France, a well-made tortilla is a sign of good things to come.
In el DF, here are a few of my favorite places to get extraordinary, hand -made tortillas:
Avenida Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Obrera Popular
Open Monday - Friday 10 AM - 6:30 PM,
Saturday, Sunday 9 AM - 6:30 PM
Parque Delta Mall, Av. Cuauhtémoc 462,
Colonia Narvarte (not on map)
Open Daily 8 AM-8 PM
Alejandro Dumas 7, Colonia Polanco
Open daily 8 AM -11 PM
Paseo de la Reforma at Insurgentes, Colonia Juarez
Open daily 8 AM -11 PM
Chef Carmen Titita, author of several cookbooks, is a big name in the Mexico City culinary scene. Her original restaurant is popular with families, especially on weekends. The food is traditional, with interesting choices: try the duck in black mole and the chongos (a weirdly wonderful curdled milk dish) for dessert. Recently, two branches of El Bajío have opened, one at Parque Delta, a sleek shopping center; it is more accessible to the Centro, but lacks the ambience of the original location. The branches in Polanco and Reforma are open at night. The menu in all four locations is the same, and the tortillas are memorably meaty and smoky.
Calle Durango 200, near Plaza Cibeles,
Open Monday-Saturday 1 - 6:30, Sunday 1:30 - 6:30
This fashionable spot is one of the best seafood restaurants in town. The large open room, simply but creatively decorated, has a bright, Pacific-coast beach atmosphere. The menu is pure Baja: tuna sashimi and pescado a la talla, (a whole open fish grilled with 2 salsas–half red, half green) - are outstanding. Vivacious owner Gabriela Cámara, who is active in Slow Food International, serves tortillas, made in-house from organic corn grown in Xochimilco, right in the Distrito Federal.
Sra. Victoria, at the Tuesday tianguis in La Condesa, sitting on the sidewalk on calle Pachuca brings in amazing handmade blue and yllow tortillas from the state of Mexico and selles them by the dozen. If you can't get there, a lady in the Medellin market in la Roma, accros from La Morenita, the seafood restaurant, has them everyday, and sells salsas as well.
Most markets, Coyoacán, San Angel, Jamaica, Merced etc. and tianguis (street markets) such as those in Condesa, Roma and Polanco, include people who sell handmade tortillas out of baskets. Keep your eyes peeled.