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MARKETS : Masa Central

July 09, 1992|LINDA BURUM

Mexican food purists often worry that progress is eroding the country's time-honored cooking methods. They fret that the rich moles, once sold only in open markets by talented village cooks, are slowly being replaced by bottled mole mix from the supermarket. Too many home cooks, they complain, have taken to using packaged instant masa or dehydrated broth. And on both sides of the border (with the exception of a very few restaurants), it's growing more difficult to find the sort of handmade tortillas that for centuries have given Mexican meals their marvelous earthy character

La Azteca Tortilleria, on a quiet street in East Los Angeles, will bring joy to the hearts of these traditionalists. The owners of this tiny shop are so fussy about freshness that they cook their handmade tortillas in small batches several times a day. And freshness is just one quality that makes the tortillas so extraordinary. Rolling and patting flawless tortillas, like making flaky pie crusts or perfect divinity, is quickly turning into a lost art. Fortunately, La Azteca has long employed tortilla maker Maria Rodriguez, who is one reason the business has such a loyal following.

On an average day the shop sells about 60 to 80 dozen each of flour and corn tortillas. But competition from mechanically made tortillas is undeniable (1990 wholesale sales of $1.5-billion are predicted to double by 1995, according to the Tortilla Industry Assn.).

"A whole generation has grown up on machine-made tortillas so they don't insist on good handmade ones," says Alex Bernal, whose wife, Maria, owned La Azteca for more than 15 years.

Are La Azteca's tortillas that much different from the supermarket varieties? Absolutely. Slightly heavier than machine-rolled ones, the flour tortillas have the look and feel of pastry, and their slight irregularities impart a rustic character. Made the traditional way with the purest lard, they have the unmistakable taste of northern Mexican cooking. (La Azteca does accept special orders for tortillas made with vegetable shortening too.) Handmade corn tortillas aren't as difficult to find as the flour kind, but La Azteca's are uncommonly tasty and more refined than most; the tortillas make tacos that won't fall apart in your hand and enchiladas that you can really sink your teeth into.

Tortilla production begins each morning about 4:30, after Rodriguez dons her apron. First, using a heavy, old-fashioned dough divider that looks like a turn-of-the-century hand water pump, she presses the dough into small balls, dusts them with flour and lines them up in rows before her on a large stainless-steel table. Flattening a ball with a thin rolling pin, she rotates it, rolls it again, then flips it onto the large iron griddle, all with movements as precise and well choreographed as a ballet. Alternating between cooking and rolling out the tortillas, her movements become a rhythmical roll-roll, flip, turn, turn, until she scoops the finished tortillas into a bin. Another employee stacks the tortillas and seals them in plastic bags.

Before cooking fresh batches of flour tortillas, Rodriguez moves on to making corn tortillas. The shop's mill churns out fresh corn dough, or masa , in small batches using the corn that has been soaked in slaked lime water overnight. Rodriguez whips the masa in a mixer to lighten it, then unceremoniously plunks a mound of it on a lava rock metate, or grinding stone. She rubs a little piece of dough on the rough stone to smooth it before tossing it from palm to palm until it is flat and ready for the grill.

La Azteca uses its tortilla facility--a large room with free-standing burners, several griddles, tables and a refrigeration area--as though it were a big, extended family kitchen. There's a pot of beans on the stove every day, and carnitas may be bubbling, tamales steaming or menudo cooking for weekend orders. Customers casually discuss their order with Maria Gonzalez, the shop's new owner, telling her whether they want their gorditas with or without beans or whether to mix fresh chile with the tomato and onion that tops the tacos.

If you come early in the morning you can watch the tortilla production and order breakfast at a small table by the window. Little can compare with a chorizo and egg burrito made with flour tortillas hot off the griddle or with the simplicity of a cheese-filled quesadilla that allows the taste of fresh tortillas to come through.

But don't expect restaurant service. On the bare wall, a small hand-written menu lists prices for various quantities of masa, tortillas and a few (but not all) of the cooked items sold here. No one has bothered to add the quesadillas, gorditas, burritos or sopes to the list although, like La Azteca's tortillas, they are some of the best in town.

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