Perchance to Make Tortillas at a Tex-Mex Restaurant

I have fulfilled a lifelong dream.

For years now, I have secretly envied those fortunate few who man the tortilla stations at Mexican restaurants. What could be more fulfilling than playing with dough all day? Could there be a more therapeutic job? I have longed to sink my fingers into a balled-up, uncooked tortilla. I have wondered what it would feel like to mold it, roll it, cook it, eat it — fresh off the whatchamacallit.

I am also inept at cooking.

And so, armed only with my dream and my handicap, I contacted the original Ninfa’s on Navigation and asked to shadow a tortilla maker during a low-volume shift. Miraculously, General Manager Heath Beeman agreed.

“This is where it all started, where Mama Ninfa first stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla...” Thus claims the official Ninfa’s Web site. Since 1973, Ninfa’s has been known not only for its fajitas but also for its handmade flour tortillas. As such, it is a worthy venue in which to embark on an apprenticeship.

The tortilla station at the Ninfa’s on Navigation is located in the FOH (restaurant speak for front-of-house), next to the window where food is picked up by servers. Guests waiting to be seated watch all the tortilla action while they salivate. This is a subtle form of torture.

Juan Carlos Zelaya, the assistant manager, directs me to an open table and asks whether I need a translator. This is unexpected twist. My Spanish skills are survival-level at best.

“Does she speak English?” I ask, assuming the interviewee is one of the women I saw in the FOH.

“Uh…” Juan replies.

We determine that his translation is necessary. Moments later, Juan returns with a woman who is wearing an apron.

“¿Lista?” He asks her.

They both sit. My survival Spanish tells me that this means she is ready.

Maria Lagunas is the number one tortilla cook at the original Ninfa’s. She has worked there since 1999, but her tortilla-making experience extends back to when she was seven years old and living in Mexico. There, she learned to make corn tortillas. She says it took her about three months to master the flour tortilla technique used at Ninfa’s. I ask her whether she enjoys her job.

“A mí me gusta” is Maria’s emphatic reply. (Survival Spanish translation: “I like it a lot.”)

Evidently, Lagunas is something of a phenomenon within the Ninfa’s realm. She says the executive corporate chef once asked her how she manages to prevent the tortillas from becoming too fluffy. She claims the secret is allowing the dough to sit for ten minutes before rolling it flat. Even with this knowledge, however, the executive chef was unable to replicate Maria’s results. Or so the story goes.

“She suspects it’s the hands,” says Juan.

Whatever special ingredient her hands add to the mix, Lagunas insists she likes her job so much that her fingers never feel tired, despite their making anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 tortillas each day.

On that note, I ask whether it would be a total violation of health regulations if I were to receive a hands-on lesson. The answer is no, and Juan, Maria and I relocate to the tortilla station. A large trough of pre-made dough sits on a wooden counter. Maria sprinkles flour over the counter and begins squeezing handfuls of dough into perfectly round balls. She drops each ball onto the counter where they will sit for the essential ten minutes before being rolled flat, as the dough shrinks if it does not rest long enough. All this is performed at lightning speed.

“May I try?” I ask.

Juan explains in Spanish to Maria. She nods. I have already washed my hands at the nearby sink, so I plunge into the trough and attempt to produce a ball of dough that is roughly the right size. Maria weighs it in her hand against the balls she has created. Mine is a little too big. The official weight for fajita tortillas is 1 ¼ ounces. Tacos are larger: 2 ¼ ounces. Heath Beeman leans over my shoulder.

“You know,” he says, “if you were to weigh each one of those,” indicating the balls produced by Maria, “they would all weigh exactly the same.”

I am beginning to understand the magic of Maria Lagunas’s hands.

We progress to the rolling phase. Maria first flattens the dough with her fingers into a little round disc; then she stacks two discs on top of each other and rolls them with a wooden pin.

“Two at a time?” I ask, amazed.

Juan relays Maria’s reply: She sometimes rolls up to eight tortillas simultaneously because it’s faster.

I try my hand at flattening the dough and realize it’s not as easy as it looks. Maria’s tortillas are shapely and even; mine is lopsided and fatter on one end. I smile sheepishly and notice that guests are watching me with amusement.

“It’s okay,” Maria says. She takes the rolling pin and salvages my tortilla.

I am instructed to toss my tortilla onto the griddle, where another woman is monitoring it with a spatula. I find this unnerving. Something tells me that the sizzling griddle will jump out and attack me if I stand too close, so I toss my tortilla onto it from a few feet away. Maria and the other woman are laughing. If only they knew the disasters I have caused in my own kitchen.

A few flips and pats with the spatula by the expert, about 60 seconds of cook time until bubbles appear on the surface, and my tortilla is transferred into…uh…you know, a tortilla container. That thing you get when you order fajitas. I don’t know what it’s called.

“Would you like to eat your tortilla?” Juan asks, translating for Maria.

And so I eat it. And it is goooood. Still warm.

I have one more question for Maria. I have wondered this almost my entire life.

“Do you ever eat the tortillas while you’re making them?”

I ask because the temptation of fresh tortillas would be too difficult for me to resist if I had her job. Maria says that when she first started working at Ninfa’s she ate a lot of tortillas “con mantequilla” (with butter). She says she also gained weight. I notice that she does not specify when said tortilla consumption occurred — whether or not it was during her shifts. She probably has the self-restraint not to eat on the job, but with two managers listening I do not ask her to elaborate. I am content to leave at least one secret to my imagination.

Well, two secrets, actually. Most likely no one will ever know the source of the tortilla-making power within Maria Lagunas’s hands. – Linda Leseman

Many thanks to Heath Beeman, Juan Carlos Zelaya and Maria Lagunas for their cooperation, and to Ninfa’s for the delicious complimentary meal which followed my stint at the tortilla station.