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Crisscrossing L.A. on a quest for tacos made with flour tortillas

A hunt for tacos in L.A. made with tortillas of fresh, gluten-filled flour — not corn —yields few results.

May 26, 2013|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • Mexicali Taco & Co. co-owner Esdras Ochoa with a plate that includes a taco made of flour tortillas.
Mexicali Taco & Co. co-owner Esdras Ochoa with a plate that includes… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The answer always comes with a puzzled look.

"Flour? What's wrong with corn?"

It's hard to explain to friends and the befuddled person behind the counter of a tortilleria or taco truck that nothing is wrong with the commonly found masa de maiz, but this Sonoran desert-born Mexican would love her carne asada resting on a small flour tortilla.

I grew up in Nogales, Ariz., with family hours away on both sides of the border, and maize was an afterthought.

Most kitchens had a rolling pin on the counter and a robin's egg-blue box (or sometimes, bucket) of shortening in the refrigerator, waiting to be joined with some flour, water, salt and baking soda. Breakfast burritos were made with pizza-sized sobaqueras — so named because the person making them usually extends the dough over his or her forearm near the armpit (or sobaco) to stretch them to their final massive size. Lunchtime tacos? Always flour; corn tortillas were hardly ever the default.

When I left the land of saguaros and landed in Los Angeles, the city that named the bacon-wrapped hot dog its official dog, I figured I moved to the right place. After all, Hermosillo, the city where I was born, perfected the bacon-wrapped concoction and has a cart on seemingly every corner.

Some might call my last visit to a dog cart ill advised or ill fated, but however ill it (or I) was, it made me realize that I needed to search for another food that reminded me of home.

My quest for the warm, buttery tortilla was more like a casual browse. I would nonchalantly ask friends or co-workers, once even the president of The Times, whether they had come across any tacos made with flour tortillas. Their suggestions often led me to places like Boyle Heights' Guisados or La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara. All suggestions were incredibly tasty, but gluten-filled flour they were not.

My trips home became less frequent as I settled in to life in the city, though it meant my stash of frozen tortillas would have to be rationed even more carefully.

Comments like "Have you tried the ones at Trader Joe's?" or "I like this brand I just buy from the supermarket" made me realize that in a city of 1.2 million people of Mexican origin, I might be the only one who prefers to wait for Mom to ship tortillas than to tear into a pack of Guerrero's.

The hunt has led me to far-flung carnicerias in Wilmington and Carson, tortillerias in Cypress Park and panaderias in Bell. One taco truck on Beverly claimed they made their tacos on flour tortillas, but when I peered through the windows, I saw the well-meaning chef place the meat on a burrito's tortilla, sliced into taco-sized triangles.

Late last summer, my boyfriend took me on a surprise date. We walked for nearly a mile past apartment buildings in Chinatown until we reached the California 110 onramp at Figueroa. There, he found Mexicali Taco, which serves its carne asada on flour tortillas slightly larger than my fist.

That night, we were engaged.

On one of my many trips back to the simple taco shop, I asked whether I could buy some tortillas to take home.

"Sorry," the woman behind the counter responded. "We ship them straight from Mexicali just for our food."

Not completely back to square one, but not far off.

Last month, I was in East Los Angeles to interview Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, about expanding their nonprofit to a school in the area. Overestimating the flow of traffic headed east on a Friday morning, I arrived 30 minutes early and decided to scope out the breakfast offerings along Cesar Chavez Avenue near Ford Boulevard.

In one restaurant, I saw a woman stretch the tortilla in a roughly delicate way, tugging at the edges to make it large enough to become a small breakfast burrito without tearing.

On a table beside Candy Villa sat familiar little balls of dough stacked on one another like fallen dominoes, waiting their turn to be transformed by her hands and fire.

"The first owner must have been from near the border," Villa told me about La Azteca Tortilleria, which has sold fresh corn and flour tortillas at the same location for about 67 years.

When she and her husband, Juan, bought the business three years ago, they inherited a recipe "that didn't work."

"The tortillas weren't good, and customers complained," she said. So she began to experiment.

Villa doesn't care for the flour tortillas — the couple are originally from the southwestern state of Michoacán — but she knew she needed to fix what was broken.

"If you add too much baking powder or too little manteca, the tortillas will harden," she said.

I took two dozen and immediately called my mom in a burst of excitement.

"Should I stop sending them?" she asked, curious why I wasn't as excited about the singing legend I was about to meet.

"Well, they're not exactly like the ones back home," I explained. "But they'll hold me over between care packages."

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