“A tortilla can be the, I would say, the most meaningful,
the symbol of the Mexican cuisine,
it’s the heart of the Mexican cuisine, the soul
… the most recognizable element of the Mexican cuisine.”
~ Hugo Ortega
James Beard Nominated Chef
In 1519, when Hernan and his Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, the indigenous people had never seen anyone like the bearded strangers attired in imposing armor made of iron. These light-skinned strangers, some of whom had eyes of blue or green, arrived in “floating mountains” significantly larger than the canoes used by the natives. The arrival of the strangers coincided with an Aztec prophecy, leading Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, to believe that perhaps Cortés was the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered (bearded) serpent.”
According to legend, Montezuma convened his most sage advisors who counseled their leader to proceed with caution. They dispatched emissaries to greet the strangers and offer them two types of food: the food of the gods, covered with the blood of human sacrifice; and the food of humans, including avocados, turkey and soft, flat corn breads they called tlaxcalli (from the verb “ixca” (to cook [on a comal: grill or griddle]). The Spaniards chose the human foods and enjoyed the bread. Mexico would never be the same again.
Tlaxcalli, the soft flat corn breads, were a staple Aztec food made from nixtamalized maize (corn) flour. According to the History of Bread website, “kernels were soaked in a solution of lime and water to which would remove their skins. Grains treated in that way were then ground into maize dough called masa. A piece of dough that was a size of a golf ball is patted down by hand into a shape of a pancake, placed on a hot griddle, and baked on both sides.” This method is still used extensively in parts of Mexico.
Though the Spaniards adopted many Nahuatl words, they chose instead to call the soft flat corn breads “tortillas,” a diminutive of the word “torta” or “cake.” Ironically, in contemporary Spain “tortilla” has become “omelette” while “torta” continues to mean “round [unsweetened] cake.” While the culinary lexicon has evolved, one thing remains. People–and not just in Mexico–love their tortillas. In fact, “tortillas are more popular today in the U.S. than all other ethnic breads, such as bagels, English muffins and pita bread” according to MexGrocer.
As late as 1996, Mexico still had some 40,000 tortillerias, the tortilla shops which provision Mexicans with their staple food. Alas, even then tortillas were increasingly being industrially produced, wrapped in plastic, and sold in supermarkets. Today, few are lovingly pressed one at a time in rustic iron presses. Still, in the Land of Montezuma, tortillas are accorded the same esteem and reverence as the French have for their baguette and Japanese have for rice. Escape Artist which “develops international strategies for the globally minded” reports that “77% of the population of Mexico has tortillas with their food daily. 86% of the population generally eats only corn tortillas.“
According to Kemin Food Technologies, tortillas have gone mainstream under spacious skies, too, with “234.39 million tortilla consumers in the U.S in 2018. 122.48 million people in the U.S. consumed one to eight or more bags of tortilla products per month. The tortilla production industry reached $5 billion revenue in 2018.” As in Mexico, the the key growth driver in the tortilla industry is soft corn tortillas. Flour tortillas have 43% of the market share. Most tortillas made in the United States were “manufactured,” not made at home or in tortillerias. There’s a significant difference.
The time-honored, traditional art of making tortillas on a sizzling cast-iron comal is truly one of the defining elements we love most about both New Mexican and Mexican cuisine. Alas, with the widespread availability of plastic-wrapped, store-bought pretenders, the art of kneading dough and shaping orbs for preparation on a griddle is slowly being lost. That’s why we were so excited to discover Ruby’s Tortilleria in Bernalillo. Shame on us for not having discovered it sooner as it’s been around since May, 2011. Our piteous excuse is that we couldn’t find it. Yeah, in a town as small as Bernalillo, we couldn’t find a tortilleria. Well, it is ensconced in a side street off Camino Del Pueblo so it’s one of those “out of sight, out of mind” things.
Ruby’s Tortilleria is situated in a residential neighborhood and appears to be a converted home though signage is a certain give-away. Step inside and you’ll espy shelves brimming with Mexican snacks and convenience store coolers for cold beverages. A menu is hung on the wall listing featured fare: tortillas–maiz (corn) or harina (flour), tacos (asada, desebrada, pollo, chicharron, picadillo, barbacoa, res), menudo, tortas, Frito pie, tostadas, carne by the pound and platillos (with beans and rice). Ruby’s also sells masa for those of us inclined to roll our own tortillas.
Ever since Elotes Del Norte got me hooked on tortas de babacoa, they’ve become a veritable obsession, the first thing I look for on any menu at Mexican restaurants. Unlike most Mexican tortas which are constructed on either bolillo or telera bread, Ruby’s version is made on a more conventional sandwich roll. Other than that, it’s got the pretty standard fixings: lettuce, tomato, a smear of guacamole. The barbacoa isn’t quite as rich or generously seasoned as other barbacoa we’ve had, but it’s got plenty of flavor and makes for a delightful sandwich. Accompanying the torta are another form of tortillas, the fried and crispy triangular kind served with salsa.
Because the menu didn’t offer carne adovada, my Kim’s favorite of all New Mexican dishes, she ordered a carne desebrada burrito (slow-cooked shredded beef) with red chile. The telltale pinto pony speckled char on the tortilla let us know that tortilla had spent time on a comal, just like the tortillas my mom makes. Tender tendrils of moist, delicious shredded beef marinated in red chile made this burrito about as close to a carne adovada burrito as we’ve ever had. Nestled in the warm tortilla, Ruby’s carne desebrada is about as good as it gets in Bernalillo.
Corn tortillas are front-and-center on the pork flautas, the cylindrical, deep-fried rolled tacos that derive their name from the Spanish word for flutes. Though some sources contend that the difference between flautas and taquitos is that flautas are made from flour tortillas. Not so at Ruby’s Tortilleria where the corn tortillas really shine with their delicious, pronounced corn flavor. The flautas are served with guacamole and sour cream, both of the “store bought” variety. Rather than dip the flautas in either the sour cream or guacamole, we enjoyed them with Ruby’s red and green salsas.
We picked up two other Ruby’s specialties for our Friday dinner of green chile enchiladas–a pint of green chile and a dozen corn tortillas. Suffice to say, our green chile enchiladas were absolutely delicious, maybe the best we’ve made. That bodes well for future visits to Ruby’s where we’re sure to be provisioned with great ingredients for our meal. It may have taken us nine years to discover Ruby’s but now that we know where it is, we’ll certainly be back to this little gem with stellar tortillas and so much more.
118 W Calle Montoya
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Torta de Barbacoa, Carne Desebrada Burrito, Pork Flautas, Green Chile, Corn Tortillas