Building a better tortilla
Bienvenidos a Mexican Dining Week on OnMilwaukee.com. This week, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, we're spicing things up with daily articles about Mexican restaurants, foods, drinks, sweets and more. Enjoy a week of sizzling stories that will leave you craving Milwaukee's Latin offerings. Olé!
When I was interviewing La Perla's Nick Anton earlier this week for an upcoming story for Mexican Dining Week, he casually mentioned something about his business that threw me for a loop: the iconic Walker's Point restaurant makes its own tortillas.
I had to see this – and taste this – in person.
I visited Anton in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch but before dinner, and watched two of his staff place balls of flour dough into a machine that looked a little like a food-grade jukebox. Nestled in the middle of the restaurant, behind a glass window, the employees oversee as the special ovens flattens the dough, then picks it up to start the cooking process.
The hot surface hold the now flat "pre-tortilla" as it cooks, until it falls off and spirals across three levels. Then, when baked to perfection, the cook peels them off, ready to serve.
La Perla's tortillas don't use preservatives, so their shelf-life is incredibly short. Anton says that after 30 minutes, they're "hard as rock," so his staff bakes them to order. When the restaurant is too busy, he uses store-bought tortillas from El Rey.
"But we've spoiled people a bit," says Anton. "There are people who come just for the fresh tortillas."
So how to homemade tortillas taste? In a word: incredible. The staff baked me both flour and corn versions (I'm more of a corn tortilla guy, myself) and both version jumped alive with a flavor I never expected from such a simple staple of Mexican food. Saltier and with more texture than the zillions of tortillas I've consumed over the years, we tried them with a little butter and guacamole. One could almost order these as meal on their own.
Anton admits that his little tortilla factory is a loss-leader. He first saw the machine on a scouting trip to Mexico, then ordered the $47,000 machine from Texas, and indeed, it will take an awful lot of tortillas to recoup that cost. But Anton also says that he's one of, if not the the only places in town that makes its own tortillas.
"I loved it (when I saw it), but I didn't realize how much work it was," says Anton. "It looked so much easier."
Easy or otherwise, it's a neat and delicious touch.
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