Thirty years ago, the late Urbano Murrieta set up shop at the corner of Grand Avenue and 3rd Street in Santa Ana--"a little food-to-go hole in the wall," says his son, Art--and started turning out tortillas. Today, a few million tortillas later, Urbano's widow Feliza and the couple's six children are still running the business.
Today, however, it has become a big business. It operates as El Metate Mexican Food Products, probably the best-known purveyor of fresh tortillas, tamales and tortilla chips in Orange County. Four months ago, the company moved to what is now El Metate Plaza, a 26,000-square-foot Mexican food deli, restaurant, bakery and factory that turns out south-of-the-border grub in stunning amounts.
In El Metate's new building, located just a block away from its last location on East 1st Street, Murrieta family members have become, in part, restaurateurs, serving up Mexican breakfasts of eggs and chorizo, and buffet lunches that include carnitas, burritos and other traditional dishes, plus such rarer dishes as cactus and fruit salad.
In the large, high-ceilinged room decorated with murals of Mexican scenes, customers can now sit down and eat at tables, something that there was no room for in the company's smaller locations. They can also take home Mexican spices and such deli items as Mexican cheese and chorizo, and can stock up on a selection of nearly 60 varieties of Mexican pastries displayed in cases at one end of the room.
But the heart of the business remains the humble tortilla, which El Metate makes in not-so-humble amounts. Art Murrieta estimated that on a typical day the company's 115 employees will grind out between 35,000 and 40,000 dozen corn and flour tortillas and between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of tortilla chips.
The cooking, grinding, frying and packaging all are done in a large back room, where the corn is cooked in four imposing 4,000-pound vats--at a rate of 20,000 pounds a day--before being ground to a mushy consistency, rolled out in strips and cut into shapes. Much of El Metate's tortilla and chip stock is sold to local restaurants, such as El Torito, and to food companies, which package the tortilla and chips under their own label, Murrieta said.
However, he said, it is the walk-in customers who often make the happy discovery that the three dozen tortillas they have just bought are still warm inside the plastic package. And, he added, that walk-in trade, which has included many faithful who come from throughout the county, has doubled since the new facility opened.
Also, if they come on weekends, they have the option of buying tortillas made by hand on a round baking table behind the front counter, placed conspicuously to give the customers a view of the two women who do the cooking. On the glass above the counter are taped snapshots of Barbara Bush, wife of Vice President George Bush, who tried her hand at tortilla-making at El Metate during a recent campaign swing through Orange County.
"The handmade ones come out a lot nicer and softer," said Murrieta, but the women can only make about eight or 10 dozen an hour. In the back, with the machines, we can make, easily, 1,500 dozen."
The new El Metate (the name refers to a primitive flat stone that Mexican peasant women originally used to grind corn by hand) may be a high-volume operation, but Murrieta pointed out that when it comes to making tortillas, some things never change. High on the east wall of the front room are hung grinding wheels, each weighing 75 pounds and made from volcanic rock quarried in Mexico's Oaxaca province. It is wheels just like those, he said, that are still used to grind the corn, even though today they are encased in machines that can turn them at 800 r.p.m.
"People have tried and tried to find some other material for those wheels," he said, "but they haven't been able to improve on them in all these eons. They're still the best thing going."
EL METATE PLAZA AT A GLANCE
Where: 838 E. 1st St., Santa Ana.
Hours: Open daily from 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Food items: Mexican breakfast, buffet lunch, takeout items only after lunch hours. Beverages, Mexican deli and pastry items, spices, tortillas, tortilla chips.
Tours: Free of charge after prior arrangement.