“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 Breadwebsite, “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.
13 October 2020: 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.
13 October 2020: 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.
13 October 2020: 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.
13 October 2020: 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.
13 October 2020: In contemporary dining, we’re spoiled by being able to peruse menus which not only provide enticing descriptions that often list ingredients and their genesis, but sometimes even colorful photographs of our prospective meals. That’s not the case at Ruby’s where at least one item on display on the front window isn’t even listed on the menu. With only a partial image to go by, I nonetheless ordered the dish, a risk rewarded by a superb entree of shrimp in chipotle cream sauce. The netful of shrimp on the plate have a crispy snap of freshness while the chipotle cream sauce has a pleasant piquancy New Mexicans can respect–though you might not appreciate it when it lights up your belly in the middle of the night. The texture, “mouthfeel” and visual appeal of this dish–even on Styrofoam containers–bodes ordering it again and again.
13 October 2020: Considering how much we enjoyed the corn tortillas, it didn’t come as a surprise that the tacos would be superb. We ordered four–carne asada, carne desebrada, pollo and barbados–of the six available tacos and regret not having ordered the other two (chicharron and picadillo). Snuggled within the comfy confines of the corn envelopes, the meats were kept warm for the entirety of our 15-minute ride home. Though steam didn’t waft upward when we released them from their wrapper, it was easy to imagine how much better they would have been had we eaten them in the car. These are most assuredly not New Mexico tacos. They’re not encumbered by shredded cheese, lettuce and chopped tomatoes. It’s strictly about the named meats though a side of cilantro and some fiery red and green salsas are provided. The best tacos are a balanced marriage of corn tortillas and what they’re engorged with. Sometimes less is best.
16 December 2020: While the preferred tortillas in much of Mexico are made from corn, in Northern Mexican states–particularly in Sonora–the preferred tortillas are made from flour. It’s been that way since Spanish missionaries introduced white Sonoran wheat which is made into masa used to create what Pati Jinich describes as “the fluffiest, softest, sweetest, flour tortillas.” Ruby’s tortillas are very reminiscent of the tortillas you’ll find throughout Sonora. In Sonora, tortillas often called “tortillas sobaquera” because their sheer size reaches the sobaquera (armpit in English) during the tortilla-making process. Ruby’s tortillas aren’t quite that large, but they’re considerably bigger than most made across the Land of Enchantment. They’re also quite thin–almost rice paper thin–making them a nice vehicle for burritos that aren’t overstuffed.
1 December 2021: A 2012 article on Texas Monthly provides a short and entertaining feature on the “cheap, hearty and eternally beloved” Frito pie. The article explains: “It goes by many names but only one that matters: Frito pie. Cheap, hearty, and pretty darn bad for you, this humble fare, with its bold chili, crunchy corn chips, silken cheese, and bracing onion, is typically found at high school football games and state fairs.” The article doesn’t provide a definitive origin of the “Walking taco. Texas straw hat. Stomach grenade” but indicates “A five-and-dime in Santa Fe lays claim to it,” but “most likely the idea for this happy union of chuck-wagon grub and Mexican street food occurred independently to a number of folks.”
While its origin may be debated, one thing that’s almost indisputable–the Frito pie is a calorific salt and fat bomb whose delicious qualities make it a favorite among so many of us. Well, maybe not Anthony Bourdain who called it “a warm crap in a bag” and “colostomy pie.” He may have been the only person not to enjoy Ruby’s version which is pretty much the same as any really good Frito pie you’ve ever had. Maybe it’s served in a Styrofoam bowl instead of in an open bag of Fritos corn chips, but the result is the same, a melding of ingredients that go very well together with a piquant chile bringing out the best in the concoction.
1 December 2021: During each of our four visits to Ruby’s Tortilleria, my Kim has enjoyed a carne desebrada burrito with red chile. It’s an excellent burrito, but I had to answer the question “gee, I wonder what this burrito would taste like with green chile.” The answer, of course, is fantastic. Okay, the green chile isn’t quite incendiary enough for me, but my Kim accused me of wanting to kill her when she took a bite. Moral of the story, piquancy is in the taste buds of the person eating chile. You can argue that Ruby’s green chile is too hot, but you can’t argue that it’s delicious.
Against the tide of automation and convenience, Ruby’s Tortilleria does its best to uphold Mexico’s tortilla-making legacy by preparing its tortillas on a comal then showcasing them in a number of delicious dishes. It’s one of the most delicious reasons to visit Bernalillo.
118 W Calle Montoya
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 December 2021
1st VISIT: 13 October 2020
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Torta de Barbacoa, Carne Desebrada Burrito, Pork Flautas, Green Chile, Corn Tortillas, Shrimp in Chipotle Cream Sauce, Tacos, Frito Pie,