All in all, it takes about 30 seconds for the tortilla to cook one side, flip, cook the other, flip again, then float down the conveyor belt and pop into a small bin with its fresh-as-can-be siblings. It’s hot to touch at first, but after a few seconds it is cool enough to eat. Soft and perfectly chewy, its flavour is subtly sweet and full of depth—this isn’t your typical grocery-store tortilla.
Made on a traditional propane-fuelled tortillera imported from Mexico, these tortillas are disseminated to the various locations of Vancouver-based restaurants La Taqueria and La Mezcaleria. Housed inside the kitchen of La Taqueria’s Yukon Street spot, the large machine represents an important milestone for the restaurants and their head chef, Mariana Gabilondo.
“We’re a Mexican restaurant. The tortilla is the basis of everything. We can’t be Mexican without the tortilla,” Gabilondo says, seated on a long table in the cozy restaurant. “The ability to finally make them ourselves is a huge deal.”
After spending months ensuring they could get the machine working in Vancouver (including having it abide by Canada’s health and safety regulations), La Taqueria finally has it up and running, churning out consistently delicious tortillas for its array of mouthwatering tacos (the al pastor is a must). At the end of the day, for them, it’s about getting as close to traditional tortillas as possible.
“It’s as close to a comal as we can get. A comal is the hot, flat plate, the griddle, basically, that cooks the dough,” explains Gabilondo, a Mexico City native. “You cannot speed up this machine. You cannot make it go any faster. It needs exactly the amount of time to go around in one circle, before it’s ready to turn it over and go around the other side, and then the last time to turn it over to get the air in it to pop. So it’s as traditional as we can do without doing it by hand. Which I think is pretty neat. You’re gonna be waiting. You count them, you see them going down one by one—one taco, two tacos, three tacos. But it doesn’t get better than that.”
It’s also about providing a superior product, which means providing a fresh product. “Freshness is a boundary in Mexico that touches everyone. The poorest people in the street and the richest people will go out of their way to get fresh tortillas every day,” Gabilondo says. “And it’s a point of pride. It doesn’t matter what level you are economically and what part of the country you’re from.”
A professional cook for over 30 years, Gabilondo grew up with a love of food thanks to her father. “I don’t remember a time I wasn’t cooking. The first time I cut myself with a knife, with my dad in the kitchen, I could not have been more than seven,” she says. “In Mexico it’s all around the dinner table. If you want to upset your grandmother, you don’t eat your dinner. If you want to make somebody happy, you feed them. It is, in fact, the basis of what makes Mexican food the way that it’s made—the more elaborate, the more love you show.”
That’s why proper tortillas are such things of beauty. They require exact heat, exact time, exact amount of flour made from the best corn. When done well, tortillas are the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine—so it makes sense that cooking them in-house is such an important step for Gabilondo, who has worked at La Taqueria and La Mezcaleria since she first moved to the city. “I landed in Vancouver just over three years ago. And within a week I landed at the doorstep of Mezcaleria,” she recalls, tears welling in her eyes. “Basically, for me, Taqueria and Mezcaleria and Vancouver intertwine. They have been my home for three years. What can I say? It’s as close to Mexico as I can get.” She says that she becomes more Mexican the more time she spends in Canada, and it makes sense—we are born of a certain place, and no matter where we are, that place pulses in our veins.
Gabilondo admits it’s hard for her to go back to Mexico now; every time she visits, the pull of her home country means she stays for long periods of time that make it both hard to leave and hard to return to her new life. “I’m also aware that Mexico is in a place right now that we wish it had never reached. It’s become so much more dangerous to be there, it’s going through a tremendous amount of great urban upheaval, to say it in the kindest possible manner. And that’s hard, it’s hard to see your country go through that,” she says. “On the other hand it’s also a reality of how proud we are to do here what we do, and as much as we hate what’s going on back home, to say, ‘We’re worth saving and preserving.’” The depth of flavour in a fresh tortilla? That’s where it comes from.