Southern California is home to many tortillerias run by families for generations. The venerable Diana’s Mexican Food celebrates its golden anniversary this year. But go back further, and you’ll find Romero’s (opened 1968), La Gloria (1954), Ramona’s (1947), and Acapulco Mexicatessan (1945, and #TortillaTournament contender).
But to find the oldest continuously operating tortilleria in Southern California, you need to hop on the 10 Freeway and drive. Past Eastlos, past the San Gabriel Valley, past Riverside and even Banning.
You gotta go all the way to the outskirts of downtown Indio to Arriola’s Tortillas. They’ve been making fresh corn and flour tortillas out of its low-slung location since 1965, but founders Herlindo and Eulalia Arriola started making and selling tortillas out of their house around the corner in 1927.
92 years of tortilla-making.
“We’ve got people older than me telling me they’ve come since they were a kid, and they’re bringing their kids and grandkids,” says 30-year-old Ian Townley, the fourth generation of Arriola’s. “I’m a part of something that’s bigger than me.”
Arriola’s is mostly a kitchen, with a tiny counter offering Cal-Mex classics like burritos, chile verde and colorado, tamales, and Sunday menudo. Their most distinctive dish is a "tamale boat," fresh beef tamales drowned in savory chile colorado and nacho cheese. They also make fine salsas, and sturdy chips.
But the core of Arriola’s business is tortillas.
A couple of times a week, workers nixtamalize corn and roll out flour balls to prep their tortillas. The results go into a massive machine that dates back to the 1960s, but the tortillas taste as if they’ve been patted out by hand. Locals know when fresh ones are available, and call ahead to reserve an order; for visitors, a small cooler near the register usually stocks unlabeled bags of corn and flour until they inevitably sell out.
Arriola’s doesn’t use preservatives, so the corn tortillas taste earthy and chewy and good. The flour tortillas (which scored a big upset in the 1st round of our #TortillaTournament) are more unique -- nearly Tex-Mex in appearance, but with a stronger flour flavor than the baking power normally used in Tex-Mex tortillas. These are hints of Durango, the state from which Townley’s great-grandparents migrated before settling in Indio in the 1920s.
“They’re a little bit thicker, homemade-style tortillas,” he says. “It works for what we use it for, because we serve saucy meats, and the tortillas hold them in better.”
Townley does a little bit of everything: cashier, food prep, hype man. He grew up helping at the store, especially during Christmas, when lines form out the door for Arriola’s fresh masa. After leaving for a while, “to do my own thing,” Townley returned four years ago to work alongside his grandfather, Ray Arriola.
“To be able to work for him was a nice thing,” Townley said. “He was happy with that.”
The youngest of eight children, Ray took over Arriola’s in 1965 upon the passing of his parents, Herlindo and Eulalia. He went to work almost daily, until he died earlier this year at age 88. His daughter, Becky Hernandez (Townley’s aunt), now runs the tortilleria.
For decades, Arriola’s was the only tortilleria serving the Coachella Valley, making deliveries to restaurants and mercaditos around the area’s desert communities. Production has leveled off in the past decade, as more tortillerías have opened in Coachella and Cathedral City, and as consumers go to supermarkets to buy cheaper, mass-produced tortillas.
Townley said Yelp and social media have helped Arriola’s continue.
“We’re one of the [restaurants] that pop up and we’ll get people who otherwise wouldn’t know we were here,” he said. “I get people driving from Phoenix to LA, and they’ll come to our spot because they want a quick bite to eat. When they go back home to Arizona, they’ll stop in again.”
Townley wants to push Arriola’s into the future by building a bigger social media presence, getting into catering, and buying a food truck to take advantage of the various festivals that run through Indio every year. But there’s no plan to change the food or production, because there’s no need to.
“This business has taken care of my family for years,” he said. “And hopefully, it’ll do the same for the generations that follow me.”
Arriola’s Tortilleria, 82721 Wilson Ave, Indio, (760) 347-7782