Flour tortillas have existed in Southern California as long as Mexicans have lived in the region. But they never got any respect, with Mexicans dismissing it as a gringo heresy.
The past couple of years, however, has seen them suddenly become hip. Yelp-loved restaurants like the La Monarca panaderia chain, Sonoratown in downtown LA, and Mexicali Taco near the city’s Chinatown have gotten critical praise and good sales on tortillas that are all-natural, don’t use lard, and are free of preservatives, unlike the vast majority of flour tortillas sold in the United States.
As this trend is expected to spread across the United States, you can thank Burritos La Palma, a small chain with a food truck and restaurants in El Monte and Santa Ana, for starting it all. It’s most famous for selling burritos de birria de res, a Zacatecas-style beef take on the classic goat stew. Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold named its palm-sized creation one of his favorite burritos, and it won Best in Show at the 2016 version of Tacolandia, the largest taco festival in the United States.
Owner Alberto Bañuelos, who runs La Palma with his wife, Lauren, credits all of its success to his homemade flour tortillas. “Without the tortilla,” the warm-hearted Orange County resident says, “you’re missing a big part of the taste.”
His tortillas aren’t the chalky wastes of wrap that you get from Mission or Guerrero brands, or the rubbery things that Chipotle uses. They’re pliant, yet soft and buttery, as delicate as a napkin and just as translucent. Instead of mucking up the flavor of the fillings, like most flour tortillas usually do, Burritos La Palma’s version enhances. And on its own, they become the only spoon you’ll ever need.
Burritos La Palma makes about 4,000 fresh tortillas daily at its El Monte location. And not in a giant machine, but by hand. “We have somebody who cares enough to press each one—his name is Armando Roman,” Alberto says (The recipe remains a family secret; therefore all ingredients are measured out and pre-mixed). “He’s my compadre and not a man of many words, but he is a stickler for quality and consistency. If it’s not done right it’ll be thrown away and done again.”
Alberto’s dad, José, concocted the recipe 37 years ago in their hometown of Jerez, Zacatecas, when he moved his family back to Mexico after living in the United States. At the time, flour tortillas mostly existed in Mexico’s border states – there wasn’t even any tortillerías in Jerez that made them. José saw a business opportunity, and worked on his recipe for months. “My father, being somebody who always wanted to serve what he wanted to be served, never really worried about the cost of quality,” he says. “He figured people would appreciate it eventually, and that’s how we grew.”
“There’s this notion that Mexican food should be inexpensive and fast.”
Alberto moved back to Southern California in the 1990s, and got into the restaurant industry for a good 20 years before deciding to open up a branch of Burritos La Palma in El Monte in 2012 to take advantage of the huge Jerez diaspora in the region. California’s Alta California food movement gave Bañuelos the idea to start making his family’s tortillas, as he felt there was finally an audience that would appreciate homemade flour tortillas. “There’s this notion that Mexican food should be inexpensive and fast – that may work for the big guys but our tortillas are about integrity, taste and quality,” he says. “We stay true to our roots.”
Burritos La Palma sells its tortillas only at its stores; each pack contains 10 and are eight to nine inches in circumference – smaller than the standard 12-inch. “Our burritos are small and we keep them that size for a reason,” he says. “You can buy three different burritos and not feel like you just had a Thanksgiving dinner.”
As for Burritos La Palma’s future, Alberto wants to open more restaurants in Orange County and Los Angeles and eventually up his flour tortilla production. But no matter what he does, Bañuelos plans to keep his tortillas remain small batch and artisanal. “You’re getting quality over quantity, that’s what really made me want to make my family’s tortillas here,” he says. “For me, it’s about creating something that I’m proud of, and sharing the recipes that my parents have given to me.”