“Flour tortillas? I can’t say I’ve ever been to a place that serves a good one,” says Natalie Hernandez, the chef and owner behind recently closed Bed-Stuy taqueria Boca Santa. In a city that’s been told time and again that its Mexican food “sucks” by West Coasters, those are fighting words. Unfortunately, in the case of flour tortillas, they’re also true.
It’s not immediately apparent how recent an addition Mexican cooking is to New York City, in part because of how much the cuisine has accomplished in such little time. Forty years ago, when cities like Los Angeles and San Antonio had already developed distinct culinary identities around Mexican cooking, Mexican restaurants in the Northeastern United States were only just beginning to come of age. Of the roughly 2,500 Mexican restaurants in the country in the 1980s, just 150 could be found in the Northeast United States. A mere few dozen were located in New York City.
The number of Mexican restaurants in New York City would blossom over the next four decades, from fewer than 50 establishments in 1985 to nearly 1,000 restaurants in September 2020. Included in that list are Casa Enrique, Claro, and Oxomoco, three of the five Mexican restaurants in the United States with a Michelin star. The groundwork for that meteoric rise was laid mostly by immigrants from the Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Guanajuato who migrated to New York City during the 1980s and 1990s.
New York is indebted to these central and southern Mexican immigrants for its supply of chiles rellenos, tacos arabes, and tacos placeros. That, and its decades-old problem with flour tortillas.
When Hernandez moved to Brooklyn, a little over a decade ago, she arrived in a borough ripe with street-style corn tacos and double-wrapped tacos placeros. Yet few flour tortillas.
“I could get a better flour tortilla at a 7-Eleven in Texas than anywhere here,” Hernandez says of New York at that time. Pueblan- and Oaxacan-owned restaurants and grocery stores were common in Hernandez’s neighborhood, but none were making the “soft and doughy” flour tortillas she grew up eating in Houston, Texas. That isn’t the only reason she opened Boca Santa in December 2019, but it is why she finally learned how to make flour tortillas herself.
Growing up in Texas, only one person ate flour tortillas in Hernandez’s household: her father, who moved to the United States at the age of 15 and fell in love with the thick, doughy tortillas he found there. Hernandez’s mother came later, having moved from San Miguel de Allende, a central Mexican city where tortillas are made from corn, but rarely with flour. It wasn’t in her tradition, but still, she woke up each morning, made a batch of flour tortillas using a store-bought mix, and packed them into her husband’s lunch for the day. As for Hernandez and her siblings, “Us kids never saw one of those flour tortillas,” she says. “We ate corn.”
The exception, of course, was the tortillas that Hernandez found at Tex-Mex restaurants and neighborhood meat markets, which served as inspiration for the version she ended up serving at Boca Santa. Her tortillas — made from flour, salt, baking powder, and vegetable shortening — were used in just one dish at the Bed-Stuy taqueria: its chorizo quesadilla. “I love cooking with corn,” Hernandez says, in part because of the deep, nutty flavor it can impart on other foods. “But chorizo is already really strong on its own.”
The “soft, almost dull” taste of a flour tortilla, she says, is the “perfect complement.”
After a little more than a year in Bed-Stuy, Hernandez announced that Boca Santa would permanently close due to the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the chef is leaving a borough whose flour tortilla game looks markedly different from when she arrived just a decade earlier. Don’t get Hernandez wrong: She still hasn’t had “fantastic” flour tortillas in New York City — “not like the ones in Texas,” she says — but a handful of new restaurants are “starting to shine through.”
One is Calaca, a tiny Bed-Stuy taqueria and mezcal bar opened by three friends — two from the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa and one from Ecuador — in 2013. Over the years, the restaurant has earned a close following in the neighborhood for its selection of regional Mexican dishes, which are rarely seen elsewhere in New York City but appear as weekend specials on its chalkboard menu.
“People, they see the menu and go, ‘What the fuck is this doing here?’” according to chef Jose Alfredo Jiménez Cuautle, who points to Calaca’s torta ahogada, a salsa-soaked sandwich most commonly found in Guadalajara, Mexico but that occasionally makes an appearance at the restaurant.
Included in that long list of regional dishes is a recipe for Sinaloan-style flour tortillas handed down from the grandmother of former owner Juan-Pablo Cristerna. Both Cristerna and the restaurant’s other Sinaloan co-founder have since left the restaurant, but owner David Hurtado and Jiménez Cuautle, who is from Puebla, have continued to make the tortillas, despite neither of them growing up eating them. The restaurant’s stalwart flour tortillas are made from flour, salt, lard, and “a little baking soda,” which wasn’t included in the original recipe but helps the tortillas rise on the grill, according to Jiménez Cuautle.
When Calaca opened its doors in 2013, the restaurant was one of the neighborhood’s only sources for “actually good” flour tortillas, Hernandez says. Today it’s just one of a growing number of restaurants that are borrowing family recipes — or coming up with their own — to make excellent flour tortillas in-house.
One of the most encouraging signs for the city’s budding flour tortilla scene arrived last year in the form of Yellow Rose, an East Village restaurant whose bean and cheese tacos served on flour tortillas have been well received by the city’s food critics. The restaurant officially opened its doors in November 2020, but the need for its quality flour tortillas dates back to February 2016, when chef and co-owner Dave Rizo moved to New York City.
Like Hernandez before him, Rizo arrived wide-eyed in a city brimming with regional and international foods, yet despite “searching everywhere,” he couldn’t find a flour tortilla that matched the ones he grew up eating in San Antonio, Texas. “You can find pierogies, soup dumplings, and food from all over the world here, but not a flour tortilla?” Rizo says. “Texas is in the United States, so I figured that New York would have them, too.”
That incorrect assumption led to the popular flour tortillas at Yellow Rose, a long-in-the-works recipe that Rizo says he was adjusting until the week of the restaurant’s opening. “I love and miss this food so much,” he says. “If I make a flour tortilla, it has to be the best flour tortilla that I can possibly make.” The recipe he landed on, which Rizo appropriately calls “his baby,” includes water, salt, grapeseed oil — a vegan alternative to lard — and Sonoran-style wheat flour that he orders from Texas.
Rizo laughs when he tells the origin story behind Yellow Rose now, but his question is an important one: Why has it taken more than four decades of Mexican immigration for New York City to get a passable flour tortilla?
For a time, the answer to that question eluded even Steve Alvarez, a Mexican foodways expert and a professor of rhetoric at St. John’s University in Queens. Ever since Alvarez moved to New York City, in 2005, he’s been searching for “paper-thin flour tortillas” like those made in his hometown of Safford, Arizona.
He’s found versions to tide him over — a brand of store-bought flour tortillas called Vista Hermosa from taqueria chain Tacombi are among his “top right now,” he says — but the most reliable tortillas in his life still come from his family, who mail him six dozen homemade tortillas each month. “For me, that’s what I needed to feel at home,” Alvarez says. “The Mexican food here is great, but it’s different than the southwest.”
Somewhere in his decade-long search for a flour tortilla, Alvarez realized that New York City isn’t lacking in homemade flour tortillas, but in chefs who grew up eating and making them. “New York has largely been a corn tortilla city due to the predominance of people from southern Mexico,” Alvarez says.
At the peak of Mexican migration to New York — between 1980 and 2000 — an estimated three-quarters of immigrants came to the city from the central Mexican state of Puebla, which is part of the region where corn was first cultivated more than 8,000 years ago. “These are people who come from a centuries-old tradition of corn tortilla making,” according to Alvarez. “No shade on the Poblanos” — one name for the Pueblan diaspora — “but flour tortillas weren’t their thing.”
The rich tradition of corn tortilla making that Pueblans brought with them inspired a generation of handheld, street-style tacos in New York City, along with a good deal of complicated feelings about making tortillas from flour. Not unlike Tex-Mex, a cuisine whose authenticity is persistently and inaccurately criticized, somewhere in the flour tortilla’s 500-year history, the dish was deemed “inauthentic.” The difference is the narrative around Tex-Mex started with white food writers, while the flour tortilla’s harshest critics have mostly been Mexican.
“Some Mexicanos look down on flour tortillas,” says Alvarez, in part because Mexicans did not cook them until Spanish conquistadores ordered them into existence in the 16th century. The wheat that the colonists brought with them grew best in northern Mexico, so while Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero continued their traditions of making corn tortillas, Mexicans in northern states like Sonora and Sinaloa began making them from flour.
Generations later, anti-colonial stigma against flour tortillas persists, though it’s been watered down with some regional rivalry along the way. As Mexican food expert and writer Gustavo Arellano wrote in an article for the New Yorker in January 2018, “Recent Mexican immigrants deride flour tortillas as a gringo quirk... Foodie purists dismiss them as not ‘real’ Mexican food.”
Even Hernandez, who grew up in Texas but whose mother’s side lives in San Miguel de Allende, says she was “embarrassed to admit” she liked flour tortillas around her central Mexican family. “I was under the assumption that they were an American thing from what my family in Mexico made me believe,” Hernandez says, “but flour tortillas are very Mexican. Sure they’re not pre-Hispanic, but they’ve been there for more than 500 years.”
The flour tortilla has been welcomed with open arms in border states including Texas and Arizona, but the East Coast has been slower to budge. In part, that’s because the best flour tortillas have a single ingredient in common, one that until very recently couldn’t be widely found in New York City. No, not vegan grapeseed oil, but a generation of Mexicano chefs just homesick enough to learn how to make them themselves.