Alex Stupak is the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria in New York City. Before opening his own restaurants, he garnered national acclaim for his work as a pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50. This is his second article for First We Feast; read his thoughts on chef collaborations here.
Once upon a time, I was at a restaurant called La Parrilla on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles. I was there because my fiancé at the time, Lauren Resler, and I were planning our wedding in California and my mother-in-law, Koke, wanted to take me out to experience the food of “her people.”
That was the first time I ever had a real deal tortilla.
Now, when I say real deal, I mean that it was formed from fresh masa, griddled, and served immediately so that it still had all of its original heat from the cooking process. The texture and aroma was so epiphinal, and it compelled me to learn more about Mexican cooking.
It also eventually pushed me to learn why so many tortillas that I had experienced prior were brittle, dry, and mealy. Surprisingly, the answer actually came from things I had learned about hydrocolloids while working at wd~50.
You see, tortillas contain starch and, like it or not, starch is a hydrocolloid. Specifically, it’s a hydrocolloid that swells in water when it gets hot, and then forms a gel once it cools—even more specifically, a “nonthermoreversible” gel. This is a fancy way of saying, that shit ain’t ever gonna melt again.
I’m digressing from the point of all of this, so suffice to say that buying cold tortillas and reheating them will always suck the same way the reheating risotto sucks, or the same way that trying to microwave that gravy that comes on egg foo yung sucks. Once starch is heated and cooled, it’s never the same again.
I had it in my head that flour tortillas were beneath us, but once I had these ones I was hooked
Due completely to naivety and poor planning, we had it in our heads that we would teach ourselves the skill of forming and griddling perfect corn tortillas along the way of launching the restaurant. I wanted them to be just like the ones I had at La Parrilla. Bad idea. We sold 2,000 tortillas in our first week, and that number quickly climbed. We hadn’t the skill to keep up, nor the resources to help us along. We underestimated the years of training it takes to make corn tortillas properly.
We were in a bad spot because we didn’t have a choice but to buy corn tortillas and reheat them, which is something we never wanted to do.
Our ultimate salvation from outsourcing was born out of my desire to impress a special customer.
A food writer friend of mine—whose name I shall not drop—was coming to the restaurant one night, and when I found out I recalled several discussions we had over the years about how much he loves well-made flour tortillas. Conveniently, fresh homemade flour tortillas are what Lauren had grown up with, so she banged out a batch for him to try with some queso fundido.
When Lauren made them that night, the aroma was so awesome that out of the several dozen she made, practically all of them were devoured by the kitchen staff.
Up until that point I had it in my head that flour tortillas were beneath us, but once I had these ones I was hooked the same way I am still hooked on corn tortillas when they are right off the comal. And the best part was that, with flour tortillas, we actually did have the skill set in house to produce lots and lots of something we were very proud of. Something house-made and always fresh off the griddle.
A great flour tortilla has its own special virtues and they should not be overlooked. There is a leavened, almost puffed quality about them, and they have a flavor and aroma similar to great biscuits if you need a reference point.
Before you knock me, try this recipe once. Make the dough, form the tortillas, and start cooking them. I promise that you will have a hard time thinking of what you are going to fill them with before you eat them all.
Next page: Get the recipe for Empellón flour tortillas…