Why is it so difficult to find restaurants that make their own tortillas in Austin?
Austinites love food.
They love fancy food made from organic ingredients that are just hours removed from the ground or a nearby ranch.
But does that excitement of all foods tenderly cooked or baked extend to one of the most ever-present items on Austin menus?
"Hell no!" Austinite José Levy told me back in 2019. According to him, this town does not focus enough attention on tortillas.
When I met him back in 2019 to talk about his culinary concerns, we ate at one of his favorite taco places — one that actually does make its own tortillas.
He said the question came to him after work trips to San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, places where it can be downright offensive if you dare ask a restaurant if it makes its own tortillas, places that, according to Levy, serve up little flat circles of heaven.
“You can see that they’ve been cooked on the grill. They are crunchy and crispy on the outside,” Levy said. “They are soft and tender on the inside. You can actually smell the flour. You can smell the corn wafting in the air. You’re just like, ‘I want to eat that.’”
When he came back home, he decided to start asking around in an effort to find out who was serving freshly made tortillas.
“[I] would get a lot of, ‘Oh, we make our own flours, but not corn,’” he said. “Or, ‘No we just get them from the store or have them shipped in.’ In a foodie town, that seems kind of odd.”
So, my job was to figure out just how odd it is — or isn’t.
Straight to the source
My first step in trying to report this story was to see the process, learn the tricks of the trade — and maybe eat a few (dozen) homemade tortillas.
I visited the home of Josie Vera, a longtime Austinite who loves to cook, including making homemade tortillas. She and her daughter, Gloria Vera-Bedolla, volunteered to show me how it’s done.
It was clear I was in the presence of experts.
“The first time I made tortillas, I was about 7,” Vera said. Her daughter made hers at 9.
I watched as Vera quickly measured out each ingredient — flour, salt, baking powder, lard, hot-but-not-too-hot water — and mixed them together. She set into a rhythmic kneading motion and then pulled out egg-sized balls of dough. Vera-Bedolla rolled out the balls into individual tortillas, and Vera got the griddle hot to start cooking.
Vera is not just a regular home cook. She once owned a food truck. But despite her tortilla expertise, or actually maybe because of it, she didn’t make the tortillas on her menu. She said it was just too hard for a small operation like hers. Space and time meant she’d never be able to produce enough of her homemade tortillas to satisfy her customers. So, she bought them pre-made. That’s what a lot of places do.
Before you turn up your nose too much, there are levels when you consider mass-produced tortillas. On the low end, you have what some might politely call generic tortillas. These “tortillas” (yes, the quotes are intentional) include a lot of preservatives and are shipped in from out of state. Much further up the scale, you’ll find tortillas made locally and delivered fresh each day to restaurants and grocery stores. Fiesta Tortillas is one of the companies that makes these. Fiesta’s Production Associate Luis Picos said the company’s factory off Ben White on the East Side of town can make about half a million flour tortillas and up to a million corn ones every day.
Clearly this place has a stake in fewer restaurants making their own tortillas, but I asked Picos why he thought more restaurants didn’t make their own. He said it comes down to space.
“If you’re trying to pump out as many tortillas as possible, you might need some machinery,” Picos said, “and that’s something that some restaurants have a hard time with. It’s just easier and more convenient to get tortillas or chips from a manufacturer.”
The tortilla evangelist
But it’s not impossible for a restaurant to make its own, and several places in Austin do. Some even treat the tortilla as a sacrament. They declare: “Our food is good, but damn have you tasted our tortillas?”
One of those places is Nixta Taqueria. Chef and co-owner Edgar Rico started with a dream to open a taqueria. He wanted to go above and beyond when it came to the recipes, the ingredients and, of course, the tortillas.
He took a six-month trip to Mexico to find inspiration for his future restaurant. There, he wandered into the backyard of a local farmer that everyone said he had to meet. The yard was filled with clumps of corn stalks. Rico went out into that mess, as he called it, and started pulling back the husks.
“First one I pulled back, I remember it was like a red corn,” he said. “And I was like, whoa. And then I was like, are they all red? No!”
Rico kept going around the yard. He found green corn, purple, some that were even pink. It left him in awe. From that corn, the farmer was making the most beautiful tortillas Rico had ever seen.
“It was like a rainbow plethora of corn tortillas,” Rico said. Fireworks went off in his head.
“This is what you need to be doing,” he thought to himself.
It was a religious experience of sorts. That day, in that overgrown backyard of wild corn and the tortillas created from the chaos, he became a tortilla evangelist.
The trip made one thing very clear, if he wanted to have a great restaurant, he was going to have to have great tortillas like the ones he ate in Mexico. And to do that, he would have to dive deep into a process called nixtamalization.
The process involves boiling dried corn with limestone. Then you grind the corn and make your tortillas. Cooking the corn with limestone creates a stronger flavor in the tortilla, and it makes the tortilla stick together better. Oh, and for Rico, it’s a 15-hour process. That’s right, he’s running a taco restaurant with razor-thin profit margins, and he’s decided to make his tortillas the slowest and most expensive way he can.
That’s not exactly what you want to hear if you’re the business manager of the restaurant. That’s Sara Mardanbigi’s job. She’s co-owner of Nixta Taqueria. Her job is to strike the right balance between quality and price.
“There is a certain price point that people just simply will not budge on,” Mardanbigi said. “And they will take a look at that price and have sticker shock.”
Rico admits he can’t quite wrap his head around the business side of this argument.
“I’m like, yeah, let’s just charge $15 for a taco,” he said. “And she’s like, you’re f***ing crazy.”
But you know what else is crazy? Opening a restaurant. Pouring months of blood, sweat and tears — and a lot of money — into a menu and a great meal. Mardanbigi says launching the restaurant two years ago involved a lot of trial and error.
“It’s a very experimental project that we’re taking on here,” she said. “But it comes with a lot of love.”
And she really does mean love. Mardanbigi and Rico are a couple. They love their food and each other. When I first interviewed them, they were just dating. Now, I’m happy to share that they're engaged.
Sharing the love
Let’s end this story where we started: in the kitchen of Josie Vera and her daughter Gloria Vera-Bedolla. This mother-daughter tortilla-making team spent plenty of time cracking jokes with each other. They both also made a point of talking about the time shared with family over making tortillas, or any other food. Cooking can give us the chance to share time and love with family and friends, which is why Vera-Bedolla is teaching her kids how to make tortillas, too.
I grew up in Tennessee. For me, it was watching my mom make homemade biscuits. At least a couple times a month, she’d get out the flour, buttermilk, lard and butter while I waited anxiously. But, unfortunately, I never took the time to make them with her. I watched. I should have been asking questions, helping to bring the food to life.
I didn’t realize how important my mom’s biscuits were to me until after she died and took her recipe with her. But I’m happy to say I started making biscuits recently. It’s a new recipe, but the old memories of my mother flood back with each batch.
Vera-Bedolla, like her mother and grandmother and others before, are making sure to pass the knowledge.
“It’s an act of love when you cook for your family,” she said, “because it takes effort, you get hot. I love cooking for my family.”
So, back to the original question, Why don’t more Austin restaurants make their own tortillas?
Here’s the simple answer: It takes a lot of work and a lot of space. Things some restaurants just don’t have.
But, for me, whether a place makes their own or not isn’t the point anymore. After reporting this story, I’ve learned it’s not about just making tortillas for the sake of making them. If I walk into a restaurant that makes its own tortillas, my first question is going to be, why? What is that special thing being forged beyond the creation of a tortilla?
Sure, I want my tortilla to taste great. But it also has to be about strengthening a connection — whether that’s between a customer and a cook, a cook and his homeland, restaurant owners in love, or a mother and her kid.
So, give it a try at home. Find your thing that needs a little love.
The recipe is simple: flour, salt, baking powder, lard, hot water but not too hot. Mix, and pull out egg-sized balls. Roll them out and then quickly put them on the griddle.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect José Levy has died since KUT interviewed him in 2019. Levy died in November 2020 after battling cancer, according to his obituary. "José loved hip-hop, traveling, scuba diving, mountains, and was an avid foodie who greatly appreciated homemade corn tortillas," the obituary reads.