This Is Why LA's Mexican Food Is Still Not the Best In the US

Despite all the accolades that LA gets for its amazing Mexican food, it still has one dirty, little secret: its dependence on prepackaged tortillas with crappy ingredients.

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Sep 7 2016, 11:00pm

You're biting into the most perfect taco that you've ever had in your life.

The meat—a textbook example of flame-kissed, juicy pork al pastor sliced right off the spit—is immaculate. The salsas—a not-terribly-watered-down taqueria-style guacamole; a refreshing salsa verde; and a smoky, toasted salsa roja—are equally impressive. The onion and cilantro are fresh and uniformly minced.

But the corn tortilla has the texture of a roof shingle and tastes (and smells) strangely like baking soda.

More often than not, this is the sad case with tacos in Los Angeles. Despite all the accolades that the city gets for its crazy-amazing world of regional Mexican food, it still has one dirty, little secret that holds it back from truly becoming a haven for heavenly Mexican food: its dependence on prepackaged tortillas that are loaded with metallic-tasting preservatives and additives.

Maiz in the process of nixtamalization. Photo by Javier Cabral

Maiz in the process of nixtamalization. Photo by Javier Cabral

This ugly fact is a tough one for me to admit, personally. As a first-generation Mexican-American native, born and raised in East Los Angeles, I've spent the last decade of my life idolizing taqueros all around the city. But I had to deal with this harsh reality when I met my girlfriend, who recently moved to the US from Mexico. When I took her out to the best taco spots in town, equally revered by the average Angeleno, she would only eat the toppings.

She comes from a country where corn tortillas are still treated like French baguettes and purchased fresh almost every day. She stands in stark contrast to Americans like me, who have a nasty tendency for choosing convenience over flavor—which is the case for a lot of the tortillas flapping around out there nowadays.

Masa being mixed at a local tortilleria. Photo by Javier Cabral

Masa being mixed at a local tortilleria. Photo by Javier Cabral
Grinding the masa. Photo by Javier Cabral Grinding masa at a local tortilleria. Photo by Javier Cabral

Tortillas, for better or for worse, got the Wonderbread treatment when they came into the United States. Like the flour, water, and salt needed to makes a good loaf of bread, a good tortilla should also only have three ingredients: corn, water, and lime.

Because a tortilla is so simple, any preservatives or additives added to extend its shelf life quickly stick out. (Note the faintly sour notes and burnt tire-like aroma of most store-bought varieties.) These processed tortillas are readily available, and the flavor difference might not be immediately noticeable to people unaccustomed to the unadulterated versions, especially after they've been dipped in pork, beef, or chicken drippings and toasted a bit.

That being said, this is something that needs to change in order for LA's Mexican food to be truly the best in the United States.

Gustavo Arellano—editor-in-chief of OC Weekly and the food historian author of the taco history book Taco USA—believes that tortillas became convenience foods simply by happenstance. "When tortillas became ubiquitous around the 1960s and 1970s, there was no mainstream brand here. Then came the evil brands like Mission and Guerrero tortillas to capitalize on this; and Mexicans need their tortillas, one way or another." His book recounts how tacos took the United States by storm, and how at one point, tortillas were even available out of a can.

I decided to dig in and assign as much value to corn and the corn tortillas as much as world-class bakers do in order to assign the best bread.

Of course, there are still a proud few outlaws who illegally import their corn tortillas for their Mexican restaurants in the US.

Conico azul tortillas 1

"Conico" maize blue corn tortillas from Taco Maria. Photo by Anne Watson Photography

Then there is the maize revolution that Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria in Orange County is starting. He realized this Mexican food discrepancy early in his life and built a restaurant almost entirely to combat this crappy tortilla standard, which has been fueled by the infiltration of North American GMO corn seeds in Mexico and the flavorless world of cheap, commodity corn. "I discovered all of the social and economic complexities of corn tortillas, so packaged tortillas like those from Maseca [were] never on the table for us," he says.

Carlos Salgado

Carlos Salgado. Photo by Anne Watson Photography

For Salgado, who was named Food & Wine's Best New Chef for 2015, the topic of tortillas is truly close to his heart, mostly because he grew up in his parents' Mexican restaurant and witnessed the customer outrage when they hiked up the price of their $1 tacos to $1.25. "The turning point for me was when I realized that I didn't want to subjugate myself to these expectations of 'cheap' Mexican food. So I decided to dig in and assign as much value to corn and the corn tortillas as much as world-class bakers do in order to assign the best bread—even if that means that I have to mill everything myself."

In order to make this happen, he has become one of the top customers of New York-based Masienda, a company that purveys fine heirloom varieties of maize to the American chefs who are willing to pay for them.

When compared to standard packaged tortillas, Salgado's specimens are ten times the price—and he doesn't make a penny off them. "We make nothing out of the masa business; we only sell it because the machine that we use to mill corn can produce more than what we need for our restaurant." He buys the corn in huge amounts in order to keep prices down. In doing so, he has created a micro-economy by selling his heirloom tortilla masa to other popular Mexican restaurants like Broken Spanish and Otium in downtown LA.

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Salgado's tortilla in action at Taco Maria. Photo by Anne Watson Photography

"Flavor-wise, each heirloom corn varietal is a revelation, our tortillas are a little more moist and each tortilla smells like an amplified tortilla factory," says Salgado.

Whether Salgado's passion will influence other chefs and taco enthusiasts in Southern California to be more mindful of the tortillas remains to be seen. But for people like my girlfriend, myself, and Salgado, there is no turning back.