Have you ever eaten a flour tortilla—out of a package—that was so insanely delicious it made you question everything you thought you knew about flour tortillas? So thin and delicate you could see your hand right through the tortilla, yet still sturdy enough to hold even the juiciest guisados? So tender and irresistible in texture that you can’t help but eat it as fast as possible? The kind of flour tortilla that makes your entire kitchen smell like a tortilla factory?
All these tortilla properties are unlocked as soon as you warm up your first flour tortilla from Caramelo, a Lawrence, Kansas-based flour tortilla that ships everywhere across the country. The mail-order tortillas have been an obsession for only the most hardcore of Taco Life followers, first brought to our attention by L.A. TACO Deputy Editor and co-founder Hadley Tomicki.
And now, after perfecting the flour tortilla and selling hundreds of thousands a year, the proud Sonorense behind the brand, Ruben Leal, is finally applying his masa talents to develop one of the tastiest corn tortillas L.A. TACO has tasted. He quietly announced last week that the corn tortillas were now available online, and tells L.A. TACO that City Terrace’s own Sara’s Market will also start carrying them next week. Altadena Beverage + Market in Altadena will also start carrying them next week.
Leal tells L.A. TACO that the corn tortillas took months to get right. “There is a harmony that needs to happen from start to finish in corn tortillas,” he says. “The nixtamalization and grinding of the corn and how the tortillas are cooked all play an important factor. If you add too much lime (calcium dioxide), the color and taste of your tortillas will change. If your grind and oven temperatures are not where they need to be, the texture and resistance of the tortillas will vary.”
The move to enter the corn tortilla space was an imminent one since Caramelo’s loyal customers kept asking him for it. He was inspired by L.A.’s own Kernel of Truth Organics. “Besides Kernel of Truth, I have not tried a corn tortilla that I really enjoyed. They’re all either too gritty, dry, or flavorless.”
The final Caramelo corn tortilla product is pliable, thin, tender, aromatic, and most important of all—sturdy. Leal tells L.A. TACO that it is a pet peeve when a tortilla falls apart in the middle of the taco-eating process.
The heirloom corn tortilla space is one of the quickest growing in the national taco world, with an increasing demand for them, especially in the fine-dining Mexican cuisine scene. In Los Angeles and surrounding communities, restaurants like Taco Maria in Costa Mesa and Damian in the Arts District have helped people understand the more profoundly flavored virtues of heirloom corn. Most of the tortillas that taqueros use in the city, and the ones we all eat are made from conventionally grown American field corn, and Maseca instant corn tortilla flour mix which is made with flavor-altering preservatives. Even the packaged white corn tortillas from our favorite and beloved mom-and-pop owned tortillerías in East L.A. and Boyle Heights tend to be made from lower-quality instant corn tortilla mix.
The main difference between tortillas made from heirloom corn and those made from conventional corn is heirloom corn’s vastly superior flavor, aromas, and texture. For a comparison, imagine buying a loaf of packaged sliced soft bread from the supermarket—that’s the standard corn tortilla. Then think of the crunch and heft of a rustic sourdough loaf from your local artisan bakery, that’s the heirloom corn tortilla. But heirloom comes at a cost since they are generally double, triple, or even quadruple the price of your standard-issue L.A. tortillería or Guerrero tortilla. Not to mention the carbon footprint of lugging heavy sacks of corn from Mexico into the U.S., and the elephant in the room that is the sustainability and ethics of consuming it at a premium in the States, since corn tends to be grown by Indigenous communities in extremely poverty-stricken areas in Mexico and is a vital food source there.
Leal is sourcing his heirloom Mexican corn from Tamoa a pioneering brand in the U.S. and one of the first to export heirloom Mexican corn for chefs who chose to not assimilate their Mexican food to conventional and largely flavorless American corn tortillas. Tamoa isa known among the Mexican heirloom corn community to have a good reputation for paying farmers a living wage. “When I first met with Francisco and Sofia of Tamoa, it was crucial for them to emphasize and explain how important these farmers are. I respect their commitment and I myself would like to be involved in giving back to Mexico. I’m currently searching for a good cause where we can donate a percentage of sales.”
Editor for James Beard Award-winning L.A. TACO. Associate Producer for JBA-winning Las Crónicas Del Taco. Former restaurant scout for Jonathan Gold. Co-Author of "Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (2019, Abrams) and "Asada: The Art of Mexican-Style Grilling" (2023, Abrams).
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