While the Bay Area may not have best best falafel or hummus, we do live in a blessed place for corn tortillas. The East Bay in particular is chock full of factories, churning out fresh, affordable tortillas each and every day. Local restaurants are also getting into the game — some are even nixtamalizing heirloom corn in house and making their own masa. Other small producers bring their unique hand-formed tortillas to farmers markets and small grocery stores around town.
It is, in other words, a good time to be a tortilla lover.
But with so many options, it is hard to know where to turn when you’re looking for the best wraps for your taco fillings. We got out to some of the Bay’s best factories and restaurants to find the answer. It turns out, however, that the answer is not so simple — the “best” tortillas are really dependent on what you’re looking for. We sampled each tortilla fresh (if it was sold hot) or steamed (if it was sold cold) and then reheated in two ways: toasted over a gas burner and fried in a little vegetable oil.
Mi Pueblo is a large Mexican grocery store chain with locations throughout Northern California. It’s not a particularly remarkable store until you smell the tortillas. The tortilleria churns out what must be thousands of freshly made corn tortillas each day, packaged in towering stacks in plastic bags and kept warm in massive coolers. I didn’t even make it to my car before ripping into the bag and tearing off a sample. Fresh out of the bag, the thin, flaky tortillas are well-seasoned with a subtle sweetness from the corn. When toasted, these tortillas puff delightfully like a pita, but they turn a little tough and dry around the edges. It’s far better to reheat these guys in a little oil or by steaming — these methods enhance the sweet notes of the corn and keep the texture soft and pliable. They’d make excellent enchilada tortillas.
I didn’t love La Finca’s tortillas the first time I tasted them. They’re basic, fairly neutral specimens, with barely noticeable corn flavor and a far more distinctive plastic-y note, likely from sitting hot in a plastic bag for hours. Steaming and toasting didn’t help the issue, but frying the tortilla in oil did offer a hint. La Finca’s tortillas are most commonly found at taco trucks and taquerias in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. What the tortillas need, then, is a slick of hot oil and a flavorful accompaniment. I later used leftovers to make carnitas tacos and forgot my earlier quibbles. The tortilla’s flaws when eaten solo are its greatest strengths when used to build a taco — it provides a chewy, stretchy blank canvas for hearty, flavorful meat fillings and piquant salsas. For those who aren’t afraid of hot fryer oil, La Finca tortillas also make excellent homemade chips.
Ask anyone in the know where to find the best tortillas in the Bay and you’ll always get the same two-word answer: “La Palma.” The Mexicatessen at 24th and Florida in San Francisco’s Mission District is indeed notable for its commitment to high-quality masa products. It sells fresh, house-made masa and tamales in addition to both handmade and machine made tortillas. The effort is evident. La Palma’s handmade tortillas are some of the best I’ve eaten. They’re gigantic, thick, and bread-like, with serious corn flavor and a hint of toastiness. These tortillas are excellent straight out of the bag, but they don’t suffer from reheating. Toasting on a burner just enhances the flavor of the corn and doesn’t dry the crazy-moist tortillas out in the slightest. A dip in hot oil turns the tortilla flaky — a pleasant surprise.
Also on the thick and hearty side are Primavera’s tortillas. The popular tortilla and tamale company bases its recipes on Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico, and this rustic, homemade style certainly comes through in the final product. Each tortilla is distinctive and thick, with distinct nutty and sweet corn notes. While the tortillas could use some salt, they’re still a solid option, steamed, toasted and fried. While expensive ($6.49 for a dozen) Primavera tortillas are made with non-GMO organic corn. The price could be worth the cost if you are concerned about such things.
Like La Palma and Primavera, Calavera makes its own masa in-house and hand-presses tortillas to order. But what sets this new Oakland restaurant apart is the corn it sources to make both its blue and yellow tortillas. Calavera brings in its corn from Anson Mills, one of the best (okay, probably the best) source for heirloom varieties of American grains like corn. And the results are outstanding. Calavera’s tortillas, which you can taste while dining at the restaurant or order ahead for take-out, are earthy and rich in ways that tortillas made with standard varieties of corn can never reach. The tortillas are soft, moist, and pliable, even when eaten cold — not an easy accomplishment. They’re also impeccably seasoned, making the tortillas an excellent snack, sans toppings. I preferred steaming these tortillas to reheat them, although toasting is not a bad option. Hot oil detracts from the complexity of the corn, so I would likely not go that route again.
In a similar vein are the products from Novato-based Tortillas de la Tierra. The small company sells cornmeal and masa made from organic and heirloom grains, in addition to a line-up of a couple different sized tortillas. Their white corn delgadas are petite and thick, with a very moist interior and slightly flaky texture. The corn flavor is subtle, and could have been enhanced with a slightly heavier hand with the salt. Still, they’re solid tortillas, and taste even better when lightly toasted. Steaming is also a good option for reheating, but I’d skip the hot oil. Like the tortillas from Calavera, the extra fat overpowers the distinctive sweetness of the corn.