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This Is the Difference Between Real Tortillas and Industrial Tortillas

José Ralat

Not just anyone is privy to the magic of tortillas. There are secrets to the craft, almost a religiosity, and none of it is easy.

Editor's Note: Welcome to our newest column Tacology, in which taco sage José R. Ralat explores the development of tacos and taco culture from Mexico to the world. He'll tackle taco memes and myths. He'll take us to nascent taco operations across Europe and Asia. He'll get fancy pants and old school. In this installment, Ralat introduces us to the tortilla factory owner who provides Dallas' best taquerias with the best tortillas in the city.

"You don't just decide to open a tortilleria and make perfect tortillas," says Juan Araiza, owner of Araiza Tortilla Co. "You have to study and work. You have to learn about corn, all of its characteristics. Is the corn old and hard? Is it fresh and soft? What is the temperature inside the tortilleria? And what about the humidity? You need to know these types of things for the nixtamalization process." The process Araiza mentions is the pre-Hispanic foundation of the tortilla tradition going back to somewhere between 1500 BC and 1200 BC Mesoamerica. It's the introduction, cooking, and steeping of corn into an alkaline solution to separate the kernel's outer hull and imbue vitamins and minerals to create a highly nutritious product that is ground and turned into masa (dough) for tortillas. The result smells of harvest, history, and alchemy. Araiza tortillas are earthy yellow with an aroma akin to holding a cornfield in your cupped hands. The fragrance lingers for hours on your fingers. There's history and craft inside the discs. They're not flimsy, nor do they easily crack. They don't crack at all.

I had waited five years to meet Señor Araiza, and now that I'm face to face with him in his Dallas tortilleria, I'm nervous and stuttering. The 61-year-old mustachioed gentleman with a shock of gray hair is tentative. We had only met minutes before, and I was peppering the man with questions—five years' worth of questions. As we tour his facility—a line of full nixtamalization tanks here, a grinder there, tortilla-making machines and parts everywhere—he opens up. I'm finally here, the factory where arguably Dallas' best tortillas are produced.

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All photos by Robert Strickland.

I first learned of Araiza during a conversation with Leonardo Spencer, owner of taco al pastor-specialist El Tizoncito Taqueria. Spencer mentioned the company as his tortilla purveyor. He would say no more. Taco Stop owner Emilia Flores volunteered that she uses Araiza tortillas at her walk-up taqueria, but would only admit the tortilleria was located on Fort Worth Avenue in the city's Oak Cliff neighborhood. Initial scouting for the company's brick-and-mortar shop came up with nothing. Thankfully, Jesus Carmona, owner of Tacos Mariachi, the Tijuana-style taqueria at the edge of Dallas' Trinity Groves development, is proud to serve Araiza tortillas. On a mural on the side of the restaurant is a representation of Tijuana's Avenida Revolución along which is the shape of a building with the tortilleria's sign above the dark door.

It's through Carmona that I was able to connect with Juan Araiza. Or rather his son Juan, who will eventually take over his dad's 34-year-old masa operation.

Juan, the guardian of tradition, had to vet me before I'd be permitted to meet his father. Not just anyone is privy to the magic of tortillas. There are secrets to the craft, almost a religiosity, and none of it is easy.

It's been that way from the beginning.

After a couple of failed attempts at genesis, Mayan deities got the whole life thing right when they successfully created sentient, intelligent human beings not from clay, not from wood, but from yellow and white corn.

Corn is religion. Corn is at the core of Mesoamerican culture and identity. That includes Mexico. In fact, the Mexican idiom sin maize no hay pais can be translated to "without corn there is no civilization." That civilization began millennia ago with the cultivation of corn and nixtamalization.

From that came dishes like tamales and the flat, pliable discs called tlaxcalli by the indigenous pre-Columbian cultures. We know tlaxcalli as tortillas, the foundation of the greatest food on earth: tacos.

But preparing tortillas the old-fashioned way is a laborious task that sucks up hours of the day. So with the advent of industrialization in 19th-century Mexico came tinkering with mechanically driven nixtamalization and tortilla production. Soon enough, US papers took notice. One report described a machine cranking out 20,000 tortillas per hour. (Araiza has the capacity to produce nearly 13,000 tortillas per hour. But he needs more space. He has another building and is looking to buy another property.)

Then, in the mid-20th century, science and money decided it was time for tortilla 2.0. In his 1951 The Scientific Monthly report, New Tortillas for Old Mexico, Norton F. Gurley—of Chicago-based Armour Research Foundation of Illinois Institute of Technology—details the chemistry and process of tortilla production, emphasizing that it has remained unchanged since ancient times. Gurley argues corn tortillas are dirty poverty grub lacking in real nutrients. It was time for an upgrade.

"There are several reasons, such as the desire for a cleaner product and the need for a stabilized product that would withstand the requirements of modern distribution systems," Gurley writes. "Most important of all is the need for a food product whose nutritional value can be improved." He went onto explain that the Banco de México, having realized the tortilla's shortcomings and "always alert to cooperate in improvement of the nation's health and economy," approached his employer for assistance in the creation of a stable product that would lengthen shelf life and meet increased demand.

The result: dehydrated corn flour (masa harina). According to Gurley, by the time his paper was published Armour Research had shipped more than 500 tons of tortilla flour to Mexico. Construction of a plant in Mexico City was underway, and it was expected that widespread consumption of the masa harina-based tortillas, packed with ingredients absent in the traditional masa, would improve the nation's diet. The tortillas would be competitively priced and adoption by the public could be achieved in as little as two years.

The Americans were late to the tortilla party.

Masa harina development in Mexico began in 1912, with the opening of the first factory following in 1949 in the northern border state of Nuevo León. The company responsible for that enterprise: Maseca, which today is arguably the most prominent brand of dehydrated corn flour available on every supermarket shelf and in the corners of many a tortilleria. By the 1990s, masa harina accounted for 1.5 million tons of the stuff. From this modern tale rose the Feathered Serpent's new genesis, and what you are likely being served at your favorite hole-in-wall, taco truck, or Tex-Mex joint.

Push back in defense of tortillas was quick to follow, with the artisan movements of the early 21st century joining the struggle to save tortillas from the machinery of extinction. It deserved to regain the significance it had when it was used in a wedding blessing during an 1866 ceremony at Fort Whipple in Arizona. So important is the tortilla, that in 1951 a Harlingen, Texas taco vendor exclaimed taking away tortillas would lead to insurrection.

Taking up the tortilla banner are notable chefs such as Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York, Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria in Orange County, California, and Alex Stupak of Empellon in New York.

But some tortilla factories never stopped doing things the old way. Some have insisted on carrying tradition forward, doing so without fuss or advertisement—to let tortillas do the talking. Araiza is such a business.

It has survived and flourished since 1982 by word of mouth and a strong community, but family has been the foundation all along. The elder Araiza learned the craft from his father in Ocampo, a city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, where Araiza tortilla factories still remain. The first thing he needed to do was learn how to farm corn. So he did. Then came nixtamal. Once he figured that out, the elder Araiza and his father opened a tortilleria in 1975 in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, which is now operated by Araiza Sr.'s youngest brother, Francisco.

Araiza admits operating a tortilla factory wasn't part of the plan. "I never wanted to make tortillas," he says, scanning the industrial space. "But life changes. You never know where it's going. Sometimes it has other plans. It's OK."

A taco wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla is a revelatory experience, especially when it cradles a filling such as Tacos Mariachi's strip of lightly smoked salmon with a taut blanket of mango-habanero salsa and a twist of crema. That's never more true than when the tortilla is produced by masters of tradition like Araiza Tortilla Co.

Nevertheless, masa harina remains critical, and shouldn't be discounted. Araiza's fresh tortillas are only pennies more expensive than commodity tortillas. But in business, pocket change can mean the difference between firing up the flattop and becoming "the space that formerly held… ." Even Araiza has clients that contract for masa harina tortillas. But still, he admits Maseca isn't his thing. "It's not natural. Maseca has a different taste, like sugar." There's business. And there's what a person prefers to eat.

Who are we to demand that mom-and-pop shops make their own tortillas or be branded as illegitimate? Fresh tortillas require extraordinary work and time, which most taquerias can't handle. We need to temper our attitudes lest we flirt with prejudice at its most benign. Taquerias, like tacos, vary in specialty. We can't hold a worker's taco joint to the same standard as an upscale restaurant.

Excellent taquerias, such as Dallas' El Come Taco—which offers customers tastes of Mexico City's beef tacos with the occasional foray into foods exotic to Americans, like roasted grasshoppers—employ commodity tortillas from large-scale operations. The reason, El Come owner Luis Villalva tells me, is quality control and costs.

Leo's Tacos in Los Angeles doesn't have a choice but to use industrial-grade tortillas due to demands of volume. Hundreds of ravenous Angelenos gather in front of the food truck for its lauded tacos al pastor—rich with charred edges, bright with tingling salsa de chile de árbol—served a couple of minutes after ordering.

El Come and Leo's aren't cutting corners. They understand consumer expectation for cheap tacos. A taco served on a handmade tortilla ain't cheap. I've dropped $40 on five tacos filled with seasonal, local and fresh ingredients—and they were worth every dollar.

There is room for everyone on the tortilla plane. We won't permit masters to evaporate into the clouds of history. Let's play while we respect tradition and the people who give us a piece of their home, their core.

That is what I hope to do with this series exploring all facets of taco culture—not just history but the periphery where experimentation and innovation often go unnoticed. Heresy is rare. The historical elements won't be addressed in a linear fashion. Time isn't a line. Taco development often occurs in parallel, in fits and starts. There is backtracking. There are melees. But there are always tacos.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.