The debate starts when I come across Henry on the parking lot patio. He’s eating away at a pile of corn tortillas. He peels one off, folds it neatly, eats it. Peels another off.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Yeah dude. These are blue corn. Good for you. The real thing.”
1415 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Huh? Tortillas. Good for you? We’re at this market that has a little of everything: fresh produce, meats, baked goods, candy, Brazilian pop soda, piñatas —plus jewelry repair and a little stall from which to send money. And the thing is, they have a kitchen too, and you can get tacos and other Mexican fare.
Fact is, both my old buddy Hank and I have developed paunches. I keep swearing I’ll hit a fast. But then the next meal comes along. “You know why we’re getting fat?” says Henry. “Because we’re eating the bad stuff. Not the good stuff. That’s why I’m eating these. They’re the good stuff.”
“Tortillas? Yeah, right.”
“These tortillas?” says this elderly guy, Espiridion. “They are Number One in San Diego! The real thing.”
Espiridion says he’s been coming here for years. I’m impressed by his passion.
“Espiridion is right,” says this other gent, Jose. He is a manager. “We make our corn tortillas right here. We make fresh masa, the traditional way. No preservatives, no whiteners, no softeners. Our corn is not GMO modified.”
But, he says, it takes time. “We only use water and lime. We half cook the corn, then let it rest overnight, say six hours. Then we grind it into masa. Fresh masa. And roll it out into tortillas. That’s it! But it’s an eight-hour process. Most people can’t be bothered. When you buy Maseca corn flour you just have to add water. It’s much quicker to make your tortillas.”
And he says Maseca corn flour manufacturers often cut the corn with wheat, so it loses a lot of its corn flavor. “Also, it loses a lot of its nutritional value.”
Talking of nutrition, I have got to eat. “My turn to pay,” I tell Hank. “What’s it gonna be?”
Henry opts for two chicken tacos. He says to find the food counter inside the market behind the checkouts. “You have to pay at the checkout before they’ll make your food,” he says. So, I head in, squeeze my way through the stiles, and to a counter in the bread section at the back. That’s where Alma’s waiting. I ask for Hank’s two chicken tacos. Can’t believe the price: $1.69 each. Then ask for a pork taco al pastor for me. It’s even cheaper at $1.49. Also, I get a taco de cabeza (meat from the head, $1.69), and a water (59 cents). That comes to a total of $7.77, which I pay at the check-out, then return to Alma with my receipt. “We have goat and menudo on weekends,” Alma says, “and adobada Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
I head out the front door and back around to the parking lot and the delivery hatch where I’m supposed to pick it all up. Nice breezy, sunny day. They’ve set up a couple of tables under a canopy.
It’s while I’m poking my head through the hatch that I notice whole splayed chickens roasting on hot plates in the kitchen. “Ooh,” I say to Alejandro the cook. “How much?”
“It’s $6.99 for a half pollo,” he says. “Like one?”
Heck yes. They smell delicious. He reaches for one, and with his cleaver chops it in half, and then into a half-dozen chunks.
I’m so impressed with what you get. Not just the tacos and chicken chunks. They hand out free pots of soup, and generous bowls of frijoles too. All that nosh for like fourteen bucks for two! This is old school. “Nutrition! That’s what it’s all about, brother,” says Hank. “Real corn tortillas have tons of fiber, tons of phosphorus. Good for your bones. Good for your blood. Copper, manganese. Good all ‘round.”
“Wow,” I say. “You have been reading. Let’s see if these real corn tortillas can deliver.”
I attack my $1.49 al pastor. And boy, the tortillas do have a much stronger corn whiff to them. And taste. Almost overpowering. And the flavor of my al pastor pork seems more vivid. I swear I can feel all that fiber, phosphorus, copper, and manganese flooding my cells. I move on to the cabeza taco, and it’s not bad at all. Like a cross between lengua — tongue — and carne asada. And at $1.69, who’s complaining?
But I’m still wondering about these tortillas. I do a quick online check. Food writer named Rachel Laudan says “real” corn tortillas are basically maize — corn — heated with alkali, then wet-ground to a paste known as nixtamal, which you shape into tortillas. “Maseca” (it’s the dominant brand) tortillas are nixtamal that’s been dehydrated, with usually wheat flour added. Not the real thing, but probably what you and I have been eating for years.
So why is the cut version so popular? Jose says it’s because it’s quicker for busy moms, abuelas. It’s corn, industrialized. Because of NAFTA, subsidized American corn has undercut the Mexican market. Result: two million Mexican farmers out of work. Side result: nutrition-poor corn tortillas, because Big Ag came up with this instant tortillas idea. Now tortilla eaters have to eat twice as much to get the same nutritional value they did from traditional tortillas. No wonder Mexico is getting a massive weight problem. You eat the normal amount, you starve.
So, wow. Who knew we were at the forefront of a gastro-battlefield?
Hank’s a fast reader and a faster eater. He has already finished his chicken tacos by the time I look up. And that’s not all. I check the box of roasted chicken chunks. Ulp! Only two left out of six!
“You take so long,” says Hank. “Had to do something while I was waiting.”
- The Place: La Selecta International Market, 1415 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-427-7701
- Prices: Taco al pastor, $1.40; chicken taco, $1.69; taco de cabeza, $1.69; tacos a vapor (steamed tacos), $1.99; beef birria taco, $1.89; goat birria taco (weekends), $1.99; quesadilla, $2.49; carne asada burrito, $4.99; burrito al pastor, $4.29; grilled chicken burrito, $4.49; Burrito with beans, $3.79; mulita, $2.99 (chica), $4.25 (grande); half grilled chicken, $6.99
- Hours: 12pm–7:00pm Monday to Thursday; 8am-8pm, Friday, Saturday; 8am-7pm, Sunday