Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that most Americans settle for uninteresting mass-produced bread, that most of us don’t expect much more from our tortillas. In fact, for us East Coasters who are removed from the Mexican border, we’re as likely to make tacos at home with industrial tortillas, loaded with preservatives and sold in shelf-stable packaging, as we are to make our lunch sandwiches from Pepperidge Farm slices.
The tortilla, of course, is a central ingredient in Mexican food culture, and many of the Mexicans who have settled on the East End would never settle for one that was subpar. Juan Micieli-Martinez, the winemaker at Martha Clara in Riverhead, was born in Mexico and adopted by a Mexican mother and a Brooklyn-Italian father. He grew up on Long Island eating homemade tortillas and continues the tradition with his own growing family.
“I don’t have a recipe,” he says. “I just make them by feel.” The dough for his corn tortillas, in which he uses manteca, or lard, is flattened in a tortilla press then tossed on the griddle until it’s done. “You can do as much as you want to,” he says, add grated cheese or cilantro or wrap ground meat in an uncooked tortilla and fry it to make a kind of empanada. “The cheesy tortillas, they’re delicious,” he adds.
While there are no commercial tortillerias on the East End, there are several in Brooklyn and Queens, which supply many supermarkets and tiendas on both forks. But the tortillas you can buy at your local Waldbaum’s still don’t compare with those made to order.
Which is part of the reason that, after 11 years in operation, La Fondita restaurant in Amagansett is ready to stop buying tortillas and make their own. “It’s part of always trying to improve,” says chef Joseph Realmuto. “We’d thought about it for years, but were scared because of the number of tortillas we’d need to make.” Which is between 7,000 and 8,000 per week.
Now Realmuto has three women working seven days per week mixing dough, squeezing a tortilla press and tossing the floppy disks on the griddle. The recipe uses a neutral oil to keep the tortillas vegetarian and 100 percent masa harina, a flour made from lime-processed corn, to keep them gluten-free. “We’ve had great feedback,” says Realmuto, of the roadside shop’s popular tacos—including beef, pork, fish and vegetarian, as well as seasonal specials like squash and soft-shell crab; “And people love coming in and seeing the girls working away.”
This was “the right thing to do,” says Realmuto, who compared this from-scratch decision to making stocks, soups, limoncello and other items in-house at La Fondita’s sister restaurant, Nick & Toni’s. “People are really conscious about knowing where their foods come from and what’s in it.” As part of a larger reshuffling of ingredients, La Fondita also switched to antibiotic- and hormone-free pork and beef.
La Fondita joins two other Mexican restaurants on the East End that have been making their own tortillas since they opened: Taqueria Mexico on East Main Street in Riverhead and El Rodeo in East Moriches. A peek through the kitchen door at either will always be rewarded with the sight of cooks patting tortilla dough between their palms before putting it in a press.