Mamasita introduced Melburnians to their first alternative to Tex Mex food back in 2011. Since then, the public’s demand for the hot, smoky and acidic flavours of authentic Mexican cuisine has increased a million-fold.
Before Mamasita, genuine Mexican dining was one of the last remaining cuisines yet to be explored in Melbourne’s culinary landscape – but now, as more and more real Mexican joints and food trucks appear, it has become clear we have a full-blown food movement on our hands.
Dubbed as the “Mexican Wave” by food commentators, Mexican food is now a permanent fixture in Melbourne’s food culture. Opening its doors in 2013, La Tortilleria are the unsung heroes of this food wave in Australia. The only authentic tortilleria in Melbourne, their tortillas and totopos embody a real corn flavour previously only found in the foodstuff’s home country.
Since its inception, this small-scale operation has rapidly expanded–and it’d be pretty safe to say that if you’ve eaten Mexican food in Melbourne, you have tried one of their tortillas. The foundations of modern Mexican gastronomy are inherited from ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures, and at La Tortilleria, it is understood that if you want to deliver bona fide Mexican dining, you need to know your history.
All of the establishment’s tortillas are produced using ancient nixtamal methods, a process that dates back to around 1500 BC. With only a few mechanical tweaks added, this is about as traditional as it gets! The idea behind La Tortilleria was always to introduce Melbourne to authentic Mexican cuisine.
A child of Mexico City, La Tortilleria Owner Gerardo Lopez wanted to recreate the flavours of his homeland for the city.
“Gerardo’s dream was always to open an Mexican restaurant in Australia,” explains Lopez’s business partner, Australian born Diana Hull. “He is so passionate about Mexican food and he just really wanted to show what Mexican food really is; that all this hard shell taco stuff is so off the mark!”
Hull got involved in the tortilla business after she moved to Mexico City to study. Hull says she was instantly struck by the vibrancy of the city’s once infamous street food. “I realised how amazing Mexican food actually is! It was like a whole new cuisine opened up to me, [which is something] that most Australians hadn’t experienced,” Hull says.
This was back when Tex Mex reigned supreme in Australia, Hull says. Fast food created in The States such as nachos or burritos still clouded the average Australian’s perception of Mexican food.
Hull concedes that Tex Mex still has its place, but shared a desire with Lopez to see Mexican food more faithfully represented – and so La Tortilleria was born.
Open a place that serves up a zingy ceviche, a delicious smoky mescal and voila, the dream is realised, right? Not for Hull and Lopez. Melbourne was experiencing the first swells of the ‘Mexican Wave’, and ambitious chefs were already beginning to deliver those punchy Mexican flavours when the idea for La Tortilleria emerged.
But for Hull and Lopez, something was still falling short at these establishments – the tortillas. “You can’t open a restaurant and showcase proper Mexican food if you don’t have tortillas made the way that the Aztecs and Mayans them,” Hull says. “You can’t just cop out and make them out of processed cornflour.”
On this point Hull is adamant, and rightly so. Corn is the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine, with nearly every meal or street snack served with a tortilla. For Hull and Lopez, it was a no-brainer: they would need to open their own tortilleria.
So how does the nixtamal process work? As is often the case with artisan foods, it is a simple process that takes a long time to master. Water enriched with limestone is used to unlock the natural flavours and textures of corn. After cooking and soaking the corn overnight, it is ground between Mexican volcanic stones to produce a thick yellow dough called masa, with a pinch of sea salt added to finish.’
Machinery, which can be found in tortillerias up and down the streets of Mexico, presses the masa into discs, which are then cooked until golden yellow. The smell is wholesome and intoxicating.
While this all sounds pretty simple, there are so many hidden complexities that many novices find it difficult to master the art of tortilla-making. La Tortilleria head-hunted Isaac Nava, a fourth generation nixtamal tortilla maker from central northern Mexico, to oversee their process.
Before La Tortilleria, the only tortillas widely available in Australia were either imported frozen products, or made from processed and imported cornflour. Often packed with preservatives to induce long shelf life, these mass-produced flatbreads aren’t quite the same as the real deal. If you really want to understand what sets traditional tortillas apart from their listless cornflour counterparts, simply serve them warmed, with just a touch of salt and squeeze of lime. The corn flavour is simple, but this ancient process really makes them sing.
La Tortilleria have quickly realised their goals. Four years after opening, their cobalt blue premises could no longer keep up with the demand of their rapidly expanding wholesale business, and the tortilla-making operation has been moved elsewhere. Now, the Torilleria premises, adorned with Mexican flags and paintings of Frida Kahlo, operates solely as an eatery.
That said, the two operations are still inextricably linked. “It looks like a restaurant and acts like a restaurant, but it is more like a show room for the [wholesale] product,” Hull says.
Despite the commercial success of La Tortilleria and their ever-expanding customer base, the pair hasn’t lost sight of their original aims – to educate Melburnians about Mexican food. “In Mexico, everyone just goes to the tortilleria and buys a kilogram of tortillas and that is the market there; but here, we had to get people [on board],” Hull says.
“It’s so funny though – within a couple of months of opening, we had Australians who had never been to Mexico completely hooked on the tradition of coming in with their own tortilla cloth, just like they do in Mexico!”
Melbourne’s Mexican community made it very clear that Hull and Lopez had a good thing going. “For the first six months, half the customers were Mexican,” Hull says. “We had people nearly crying at first, saying that they hadn’t smelled that smell for twenty years. They get so emotional because it’s such big part of Mexican life. It’s every meal; every street snack. It’s the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. I guess it would be like if you hadn’t eaten bread in ten years, but maybe even more intense.”
La Tortilleria’s fan base has only continued to grow. Setting the gold standard in Australia, many chefs all over the country will only use their nixtamal tortillas. You can find La Tortilleria tortillas in all of your favourite Melbourne institutions: Mamasita, Smith & Daughters, Los Hermanos.
But take the trip out to Stubbs Street; you will find a cheery anomaly, nestled among dreary Kensington warehouses, pumping out the scents and tunes of Mexico City. The tacos el pastor, sliced from the iconic pineapple-topped kebab, street food style, are not to be missed. Get the margaritas flowing and you will soon be feeling La Tortilleria’s low-key, street party vibe. And don’t forget to grab a pack of tortillas to keep the party going at home!