On The Range: Tortillas
Corn or flour?
Depends on the filling. This comes from Alison Cook, author of "Taco Capitol, USA," a groundbreaking Texas Monthly cover story on the subject of Tex-Mex cuisine, who notes that while flour tortillas are better suited to Northern Mexico-style grilled meats and to breakfast tacos, "certain (soft) taco fillings seem to cry out for the character and texture of a properly mealy, layery corn tortilla: nopalitos (prickly-pear cactus pads), homey Mexican stews (such as carne guisada), and carnitas."
But, what about wheat tortillas? Diana Kennedy, author of The Cuisines of Mexico, states that while sweet, wheat tortillas are well-known all over Northern Mexico, they really come into their own in Sonora. Yet, since Sonora borders Arizona and New Mexico and not Texas, you'll find few Tex-Mex establishments using wheat tortillas. They were almost unknown to the majority of Texas diners until the advent of wraps a decade ago.
The old-fashioned way
In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh states that Sonora is the home for flour tortillas, due to the fact that Sonora is Mexico's largest wheat-producing region, and that flour tortillas are made from wheat flour. Corn tortillas predate wheat by centuries and are made from masa.
For masa, dried corn kernels are treated, or slaked, with lime to become nixtamal, or fresh masa, which makes the very best tortillas. But few tortilla factories use fresh anymore due to its short shelf life. Instead, Walsh writes, most commercial tortilla makers use masa harina, a flour made out of dried masa fresca that lasts much longer.
So, where to find good tortillas at a Tex-Mex establishment nowadays? Hole-in-the-wall places still sometimes have someone on staff slapping them out as in days of yore. And, of course, several Mex-Mex (interior Mexico cuisine) places specialize in freshly-made tortillas, such as Café San Miguel on Henderson, El Ranchito or La Palapa Veracruza on Jefferson in Oak Cliff. OK--so where do you go if you're not close to any of these places? Well, Blue Goose Cantina uses an ingenious tortilla-making machine, a Rube Goldberg-style contraption for pressing the freshly-assembled blobs into flour tortillas, which then travel up the chute and into waiting baskets. Whether slathered in butter, dipped into queso or spicy salsa, or wrapped around rice and beans, these slices of flour heaven make great accompaniments to many dishes.
You probably won't even notice the absence of corn tortillas, much less wheat wraps. En una proxima ocasion, perhaps.
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