Chart human history according to culinary milestones, and a few moments stand out. There was the introduction of cooking with fire 1.8 million years ago, crude stoves 250,000 years ago, and the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture about 12,000 years ago. One key landmark – at least for Mexican food purists like me – came later, after maize was cultivated 7,000 years ago and the corn tortilla arrived.
The ancient practice the Aztecs developed for cooking corn in lime, known as nixtamal, is the same method classic tortillerías employ today.
The nixtamal station in the kitchen at El Charrito in Salinas is alive with aromas of simmering beans and chili verde, and also bins of white, chalky calcium carbonate powder, or ground limestone.
This is the old-school way of making masa, or dough, only substituting machines for manos and metates used for grinding the wet cooked corn to varying degrees, and even those machines employ churning rocks. (There’s finely ground masa for tortillas, coarsely ground for tamale filling, or unground for hominy.)
It’s also a way that seems to be on its way out. Lots of local Mexican food joints make corn tortillas fresh daily, but not from scratch. They’re often rehydrating Maseca, a powder base manufactured by Gruma, the biggest tortilla company in the world whose American brands include Mission.
“In Mexico, corn tortillas were always made the traditional way, with [masa], until Gruma invented the technology to make them from processed corn flour,” the company’s website reads. “This was a technological leap.”
When Gruma was founded in 1949, sisters and El Charrito managers Irene and Teresa Moncada weren’t even born yet. But their grandmother was, and they grew up in Salinas eating homemade flour tortillas made by abuelita, who ran a bakery in Mexico in the ’50s – though she stuck to bread since there was no market for tortillas when everyone made their own.
The Moncadas opened El Charrito in the ’70s, basing everything on family recipes.
“You can buy the packaged ones, but they just don’t taste the same,” Teresa says. “Can’t you taste the difference between fresh and frozen broccoli?”
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In the pursuit of the ideal tortilla, I found lots of variations on rehydrated Maseca. Saltillo (1590 N. Sanborn Road, Salinas; 772-9840) makes particularly textured, almost fluffy corn tortillas that are served warm and wrapped in paper ($1.60/about 50). Grocery chain Mi Pueblo makes some particularly pliable corn tortillas ($2.98/80-count), and even flavors them with chipotle peppers, cactus and jalapeño, but the local spots (950 E. Alisal St., Salinas and 1712 Fremont Blvd., Seaside) don’t even make them on premises; the Watsonville spots delivers Maseca-made torts a few times a week.
Panaderia La Mexicana (43 E. Market St., Salinas, 758-1392) blends Maseca with water and makes fresh batches every morning from about 6am to 9:30am. They also offer a mini size ($1.30/about 20; $1.64/regular size), perfect for catering a taco bar party. For 35 years, El Aguila (42 W. Market St., Salinas, 422-3629) served as an exception, making both flour and stone-ground corn tortillas ($3.69/about 35). They’re darker, thicker and taste more earthy. They’re also soft and floppy, making them less functional than regularly rigid corn tortillas. But about a month ago, the storefront went dark; one ex-employee says they closed for good.
Like El Charrito’s, El Aguila’s tortillas contain(ed) only three ingredients – corn, water and lime – and no preservatives, the way it’s been done since before the Spaniards arrived.
It wasn’t until conquistadors introduced wheat to the New World about 500 years ago that the more flexible, buttery flour tortilla came to be, marking another major culinary evolutionary leap.
That’s El Charrito’s real specialty, the thing that makes them stand out from their peers: the 2,200 or so fresh flour tortillas ($3.25/dozen) they make daily. After El Aguila shut down, they were the only one the Weekly found in county that did even a small stack. (La Rosa Tortilla Factory, 728-5332, does both flour and corn – $3.99/66-count, also from Maseca – in Watsonville, and supplies some local restaurants.)
These are the basis for any burrito. Like quality bread serves as the foundation for a good sandwich, the tortilla makes the burrito. Teresa says a good burrito is “80-percent dependent” on a fresh, quality tortilla.
It’s hard for the sisters to articulate exactly what it is they don’t like about the mass-produced stuff, or what they refuse to call tortillas, derisively calling them “edible wraps” instead. Teresa scrunches her nose and says, “I just don’t like the taste.”
Their flour tortilla process is as simple as it gets: A large mixer combines dry ingredients with lard, then someone balls up handfuls of dough – and slender Irene says not to worry about the lard, noting she eats a tortilla twice a day.
A mechanized flattening machine spits out raw, thin disks, and a man flips them for about a minute per side on a hot griddle. The whole process takes about a half hour.
The result is a tortilla big and pliable enough to roll a generous burrito – try the incredibly tender chili verde, $3.01 – or savory and satisfying enough to eat plain. And they’re more than a totem to the most important Mexican-food milestones of all time. They’re the county’s best tortillas.
EL CHARRITO 122 W. Market St., Salinas. • 6am-7pm Mon-Sat, 7am-6pm Sun. • 424-9446, www.elcharritoburrito.com