This Los Angeles Tortilla Life

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KCRW and Gustavo Arellano’s Tortilla Tournament returns!  Four finalists will face off live for a virtual celebration of all things tortilla October 18.  RSVP here !

“What are those?” asked my New York cousins. They pointed at my mom’s enchiladas, which sat on the counter ready to eat. I knew what was for dinner before anyone else in the house did.

Her recipe smelled so good with layers of cheese, beef, beans, sour cream, salsa, and tortillas. I never knew where she got the recipe, but I did know she customized it to her own liking. And ours, too. Mom was a wonderful cook.

Since most of our family was based on the East Coast, we spent most of our time traveling there to visit. It was a big deal when anyone came to Altadena to visit, but this crew of cousins arrived with such open hostility, bravado, questions, and comparisons with vowel emphasis in places they didn’t belong.

Mona Holmes (top left) as a child with her family. Photo courtesy of Mona Holmes

“Those look weird.”

“How do you eat that?”

“How do you say it again? Tor-wha?”

It’s not as if enchiladas are complicated, especially our Americanized version. Besides, every culture has some form of layered comfort food. But my cousins couldn’t get past one unrecognizable ingredient: the tortilla. They went back and-forth and took pleasure in making fun. I just stayed silent while my respect and patience continued to drop.

“Is this what you guys eat out here?”

“Lasagna is better.”

I was barely 12, and not particularly sophisticated. But even I knew that enchiladas, burritos, and tacos were held together by one beautiful thing. The more they laughed, my young thoughts boiled down to one question:

“Doesn’t the rest of the world eat tortillas?”

I didn’t say it out loud and let them continue to rant. But then I just felt sorry for them. They spent their entire lives without tortillas. These cousins, the ones from the big shot city of New York couldn’t even bring themselves to try one of the world’s most perfect foods.

How could they possibly know that growing up in Los Angeles compels you to take on the tortilla life?

 Playa Azul Tortilleria in Los Angeles. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW

My tortilla journey started with my neighbors. At age nine, my best friend was Raquel Hassan, who lived two houses down. One of my first tortilla memories was looking through Raquel’s kitchen window watching her mom flipping a tortilla over a stovetop flame.

My entire life is filled with these tortilla moments. Throughout my childhood, my mother was obsessed with anything in a fried flour tortilla bowl. Burritos at my high school cafeteria — oddly labeled taco snacks — where beans, cheese, and other unidentifiable ingredients wrapped in a flour tortilla were actually a burrito. But we ate them. And while in college during the 90s, tacos were no more than $.50. A perfect meal for only $2.

For most of my adult life, I've been lucky enough to live a short distance from a tortilleria. Over the last six years, it’s been Tortilleria La California, which gives tours upon request. I have my favorites near my cousin’s house in Boyle Heights, La Azteca Tortilleria.

During the pandemic, the most ideal comfort food became tortillas. When a bounty of tortillas ended up in my home in August, all I could do was mimic Mrs. Hassan’s tortilla reheating method over a stovetop flame. I often ate them without anything else. With each taste, I said a few things out loud:

“God, these are amazing.”

“These are perfect.”

“Tortilla, I love you.”

Tacos from El Ruso. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW

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