Every Sunday, at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, at one of the many taco stands, you’ll see tortillas being prepared by hand and by women (yes, tortilla making seems an exclusively female occupation). Last Sunday, at Rubi’s (a Rick Bayless favorite) there was a line of about 60 people waiting for tacos with meat and mole…and excellent hand-made tortillas.
In the early twenty-first century, when we’d go to the Maxwell Street Market, we were thrilled to find people preparing tortillas by hand. Sure, tortillas were made by hand for millennia in places like Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, but not long ago in Chicago, it was unusual for Mexican restaurants to serve tortillas that were made in house. In those olden days, tortillas were usually procured from some large tortilla factory, of which there are several in Chicago. Now, any Mexican restaurant that wants to be taken seriously is making fresh tortillas in their own kitchen.
None of this should be very surprising. With the progressive ratcheting up of America’s culinary sophistication and discernment, it was only a matter of time before people became impatient with tortillas that were made a day or so ago and delivered in a plastic bag.
We all wanted better tortillas, which are now an internationally recognized vehicle for food, with Korean tacos sold from food trucks on the West Coast and Mediterranean lamb tacos on the East Coast. It’s safe to say that the tortilla, which originated in Mexico perhaps as early as 10,000 BC, is now a suitable carbohydrate platform for almost any kind of food.
Hand-made tortillas taste like fresh corn, and they’re soft and absorbent, making them very good for swabbing up sauce and beans and other typical components of a Mexican meal. When they’re fresh, they’re pliable in a way that bagged tortillas cannot be, and they fold easily to hold their contents while retaining the moisture so essential to a good sandwich (dryness being the great enemy of all sandwiches).
But even hand-made tortillas, which frequently do not contain preservatives, get stale in a day or so, and then you have some options. You can toss them, or you can use the stale tortillas in chips, chilaquiles…or enchiladas.
Because the preparation of enchiladas involves cooking tortillas in sauce, and then sometimes ladling on even more sauce right before serving, even stale tortillas will soften up when made into enchiladas. In fact, for enchiladas, it seems stale tortillas are even better than fresh tortillas because they’re less absorbent and so hold together better when doused with sauce.
Recently, we stopped by Boss Burrito to check out their enchiladas. These tortillas, served in red and green sauce (the former sauce, counterintuitively, is milder), enfold chicken or beef, and are drizzled with crema, making them “suiza,” which means “Swiss” in Spanish. This is a reference to people who came to Mexico from Switzerland and brought with them their cream- and cheese-making techniques.
Through an amazing coincidence, harmonic convergence, or something like that, National Enchilada Day falls on Cinco de Mayo, perhaps our country’s most identifiable Mexican-American holiday.