One bite into my first taco at Sonoratown, a tiny taqueria in downtown Los Angeles, my eyebrows shot up. Unlike nearly every taco I’ve eaten in the past 21 years, since I relocated to Northern California, it came on a chewy, handmade flour tortilla. My favorite afternoon snack as a child in San Diego was a still-steaming flour tortilla purchased at the taqueria down the street from my school, and I’ve yearned for them ever since I moved away. But I’ve never found a reliable source, which breaks my heart, not only for myself but also for everyone else who knows flour tortillas as little more than bland, monotextured wrapping paper for burritos.
I asked Jen Feltham, the co-owner of Sonoratown, who’d taken my order, about the tortillas. When she told me they were made in-house, I begged to return to learn how to make them. “Anytime,” she answered. I was back two weeks later — the soonest I could manage the nearly 400-mile trip from the Bay Area.
Feltham, 33, and her boyfriend and co-owner, Teo Diaz, 31, welcomed me into the taqueria’s tiny, stoveless kitchen, where they introduced me to Julia Guerrero, the resident tortilla expert, who showed up to her job interview two years earlier with a stack of flawlessly handmade tortillas to demonstrate her expertise. Now she makes upward of 400 of them a day.
Using flour from Sonora, a Northern Mexican region where wheat has been cultivated for more than 400 years, she made a pliable dough with melted lard, warm water, salt and baking powder. After kneading the dough, Guerrero began pinching off golf-ball-size pieces and rolling them into balls. One by one, she flattened them into tissue-thin tortillas using a heated press. Then she transferred each one to a warm griddle, where she turned and flipped it for 60 seconds until it puffed with steam. Barely eight minutes elapsed between the moment she started the mixer and when she handed me the first diaphanous tortilla to taste. As I took my first bite, the aroma of sweet flour enveloped in fat filled my nose and mouth. I finished that one and greedily asked Guerrero for another.