A few days ago the Washington Post published a story on tortillas
To be precise, the story rated corn tortillas, giving WaPo
readers the lowdown on where to find the best tasting corn tortillas in the DC area.
After I stopped laughing, I starting thinking about why it is so hard to find good tortillas in DC – and believe me, it is not for a lack of trying. I’ve gone to Langley Park, Adams Morgan, and several other places with large concentrations of Hispanic/Latino populations, but nothing compares to what I can get in the Duke City.
I’ve been shuttling back and forth between DC and Barelas for three and a half years now, and have yet to find a decent corn tortilla in our nation’s capital. Don’t get me wrong - there’s good food to be had in DC, but I can’t find corn tortillas that taste anything close to what I like. (And don’t even get me started on the stuff they call sopapillas!)
Growing up in southern California, I ate corn tortillas made by the tortilleria down the street; ‘Syrian bread’
made by my Syrian/Lebanese Situ (great-grandmother) and good old San Francisco-style sourdough bread (not the stuff they sell at Smiths, FYI). So my tastebuds are a bit skewed away from mainstream American preferences – and I think that may be what’s going on with tortillas in DC.
Once I moved to Barelas, I got spoiled right quick. For a few years after we moved in La Mexicana Tortilla Company had a store on the corner of 4th and Cesar Chavez. Some say it was the oldest tortilla factory in Albuquerque, though I can’t seem to pin that claim down. (Can any Duke City amateur historians help me out with this?)
Then disaster struck in the name of a fire
. Owners Tony and Margie Hernandez moved their bakery deeper into the heart of Barelas; setting up shop on the northeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and 5th Street SW, where they continued to make tortillas, prepare tamales, pan dulce, and a few other delicious goods.
Living just a stone’s throw away, we got the benefit of fresh tortillas daily, and the priceless scent of baking tortillas wafting through our windows every morning. I’d send my kids down the street with a dollar and some change to pick up corn tortillas; most times they were so fresh I’d have to open the bag to let the steam escape.
NM tortillas have a distinctive taste to me. The ingredients are simple, just corn, lime, and water. My theory is that the high arsenic content in our water
contributes to the unique taste of NM tortillas, but hey, I could be wrong about that! And what’s a little arsenic compared to the taste of just baked manna from heaven?
I’ll be the first to admit that comparing store bought tortillas in DC to piping hot La Mexicana tortillas is no contest.
I was fortunate enough early on to figure out the secret to getting good green chile in DC. It requires being a Lobo (or knowing someone who is) and wangling an invitation to the UNM Alumni Taco Picnic
in September. Once you get within several miles of the farm, you just follow the smell of roasting green chile through the gentle rolling Maryland hills. I'll admit that the first time I did this I couldn't wrap my head around the sensory disconnect of lush green vegetation and roasting chile - it was too much for this Bareleña.
I dutifully pack a red chile ristra each time I make my August trek back to DC after hanging out in Barelas all summer. This takes care of my red chile cravings, but I just can’t figure out what to do when I get a jones for some good NM tortillas. The best solution I've come up with so far is to stash a stack from La Mexicana in my carry-on. (Ecoguilt be damned - I'll pay the carbon offsets in order to enjoy a taste of home amid DC grey skies).
But now I’m presented with a problem. The confirmed buzz around Barelas is that La Mexicana’s digs on 5th and Atlantic have been purchased by Working Classroom
. This is a great thing for the neighborhood, especially with Out’chYonda
singing its swan song and all of us weeping in sorrow to watch it go, but it doesn’t help with my vexing dilemma: where do I get fresh tortillas for my journeys east?