A shaft of winter sunlight strikes the cases of Joya soft drinks stacked five high in the front window of Gorditas Aguascalientes and lights up the colorful fruit sodas and their bottles like a stained-glass window.
A Hispanic waitress in a white shirt and black jeans delivers a sope de frijoles to my table. A sope is a disc of masa (corn dough) a little smaller than a tortilla, pinched into the shape of an upside-down Frisbee and fried in lard. The one on my plate is a study in simplicity. It is filled with refried beans and topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, a few pieces of chopped tomato, Mexican sour cream and a light snowfall of crumbled queso. The comforting flavors and textures run together in a gentle continuum -- the sharp cheese into the tart crema; the fluffy, slick dairy into the cool lettuce; and the hot, creamy and salty beans into the starchy, chewy corn masa. It's hard to believe that a $1.75 snack can taste this good.
When visitors from other parts of the country ask for Mexican food, I take them somewhere like Ninfa's on Navigation for margaritas and fajitas. But when visitors from Austin or San Antonio ask for Mexican food, I take them to Gorditas Aguascalientes. The kitchen here specializes in antojitos, which is rare for a restaurant outside of Mexico.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily. (713)541-4560
Breakfast plate: $4.95
It's also a joyful-looking place; every inch of wall space is crammed with black-and-white photos, painted talavera plates and old advertising placards. The open kitchen is framed by neon signs that say "gorditas," "tortas" and "tacos." In the back, there's a licuados stand with Osterizers and giant ceramic platters full of carrots and oranges. You can get smoothies and fresh-squeezed juices in big fountain glasses. There's even a display of horchata, tamarindo and other aguas frescas in large glass jars, just like in Mexico.
The restaurant is named for Aguascalientes, a city in north central Mexico. I believe the name (which translates to "hot waters") refers to some springs in the area. Gorditas -- literally "little fat ones" -- are masa rounds, quickly fried and then stuffed. The fillings here include chicharrónes (crispy pork skins), mushrooms, nopales (cooked cactus pads), shredded beef, chorizo with potatoes, pork in chile rojo, beans with cheese, fajitas, and chicken. I tried the nopales and shredded-beef fillings on previous visits. This time I go for puerco en chile rojo and papas con chorizo.
I liked the nopales; they tasted like green beans. The shredded beef was okay, too, but the pork in red chile is my favorite. Unfortunately the tender pork in thick, spicy sauce is quite a challenge to eat. I end up with sauce on my face and running through my fingers. That's the problem with gorditas -- they are rather fragile, yet are meant to be eaten like a sandwich. I don't think I have ever bitten into one without the filling squirting all over the place. Which is why I became a fan of knife-and-fork antojitos, like sopes and huaraches.
Antojito means "little whim" in Spanish -- the idea being that they are snacks, little treats not to be taken seriously. Originally the term antojito described all the quick-fried masa snacks sold in Mexican mercados, including some larger items like tacos, quesadillas, tostadas and enchiladas. But in the United States and Mexico, a few antojitos, like enchiladas, have evolved into something more substantial, like a plate lunch.
They have enchiladas at Gorditas Aguascalientes. There are also 16 varieties of tacos, including breakfast tacos, all served on homemade flour tortillas and all selling for $1.25. The prices are very simple here. All breakfast plates are $4.95, and all soups are $5.95. All of the guisados, or stews (which include carne guisada, carne adobada, steak ranchero, chile relleno, pork ribs in salsa, and ranch-style mole), are $7.95.
I have tried the caldo de res, a beef soup served with huge pieces of meat and vegetables, and a few of the tacos. I wouldn't recommend any of them. Not because they aren't good, but because you can get excellent versions elsewhere.
On your first few visits to Gorditas Aguascalientes, you owe it to yourself to try something you don't see very often: the masa-based antojitos. I would start with the sopes. The huaraches are wonderful, but they are so huge you can eat only one. The sopes are small, and an order of three is only $4.95, so you can try three different fillings. And you eat them with a fork, so they are less casualty-prone than the gorditas. I would recommend the sope de rajas con queso (roasted poblano chiles and cheese), the sope deshebrada (shredded beef) and the simple but stunning sope de frijoles (refried beans).
If you hate stories about how much better things were in the good old days, I suggest you stop reading here.
Gorditas Aguascalientes makes its masa from the flour called masa harina. But there is another way to make masa, which is superior in flavor. It's called masa fresca (fresh masa), which is made by cooking dried corn kernels in a lime-and-water solution (not the citrus fruit, but the chemical, calcium oxide) and then soaking them in more limewater overnight. In the morning, the softened kernels are ground into masa. Fresh masa like this was once used to make all of the tortillas and antojitos in Mexico. But it has a short shelf life; it begins to spoil within hours. Refrigerated, it can last a few days.
Masa harina is a flour made out of dried masa fresca, which can be kept indefinitely. By adding water to it, you get reconstituted masa, which is a little grittier and not quite as sticky and flavorful as the fresh stuff. I called Mario Ramirez, owner of Gorditas Aguascalientes, and asked him if he ever uses fresh masa. "Sometimes we do," he said. "But it is very hard to work with. It goes bad within a few hours." I asked him where you can find fresh masa in Houston. "There are some small tortilla factories that still make it," he said. "Especially around the holidays, for tamales. But it's just not practical for us." I asked him what kind of masa harina he uses. "Maseca," he said.
I first became aware of Maseca and the Mexican masa situation a few years ago when I read an essay by Carlos Fuentes complaining about how bad the tortillas in Mexico City had become. Fuentes said that the corner tortilla makers were being driven out of business by big corporations, thanks to some questionable government scheme. I didn't pay that much attention until the far-reaching tentacles of the global tortilla octopus reached my dinner table.
The director of Grupo Industrial Maseca is Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, better known as the "King of Tortillas." Before the election of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Maseca was an average-sized company that made mass-market tortillas for grocery stores. Instead of using fresh corn masa, like the smaller producers, Maseca made tortillas from masa harina. The large factories could make tortillas more cheaply than the corner tortillerias. Unfortunately their products weren't as good.
Tortillas have long been subsidized in Mexico. In fact, if the subsidies were removed, consumer expenditures on tortillas would double, from around $2.5 billion a year to about $5 billion. Removal of the subsidies also would put small producers out of business. But as part of its economic recovery and free-market liberalization, the Mexican government made it a goal to cut the tortilla subsidy.
Barrera was a close friend of Salinas's, and Barrera persuaded the government that Maseca's modern factories were turning out the tortillas of the future. They used corn more efficiently than the fresh masa process did, an important point since Mexico was importing a third of its corn at the time. The factories also were environmentally cleaner, Barrera argued, which would help pollution-plagued Mexico City. And they produced cheaper tortillas, which meant less government assistance. As a result, the Mexican government began to enact policies that favored the tortilla giants.
By 1994 government subsidies totaled 43 percent of Maseca's revenues, according to articles in the business press. Maseca became the leading tortilla maker in Mexico, and Barrera became a billionaire. Today Maseca has factories all over Mexico, and several in the United States. Its factory-style tortillas have become the standard, which means, of course, that fresh masa is disappearing everywhere.
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One morning after breakfast at Gorditas Aguascalientes, I ordered a large atole, which I split with my daughter Julia. The place didn't have the plain variety, only atole champurrado, the chocolate-flavored kind. It tasted thick and sweet, somewhere between chocolate Malt-O-Meal and a cup of hot cocoa. I tried to explain to Julia how unique this hot masa-based beverage was, and how it had been the breakfast of Mesoamericans for hundreds and hundreds of years. But she couldn't understand how a drink could contain tortilla dough.
"It just tastes like really good hot chocolate," she said with a shrug.
Maybe I should follow her example and concentrate on the wonderful flavors instead of obsessing on the pedigree of the ingredients. Gorditas Aguascalientes is one of my favorite restaurants. I have never seen so many great antojitos in one place. And I doubt that I will ever find a restaurant in Houston that makes antojitos with the fresh fluffy masa you used to get before Maseca conquered Mexico. But I can dream, can't I?