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Flour tortillas are synonymous with Tucson. "It’s the most iconic marker of northern Mexican or southwestern culture — it’s how you know where you’re from," said Dr. Maribel Alvarez, an associate research professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology who founded the Southwest Folklife Alliance. "In some southern, southeastern parts of Mexico, asking for flour tortillas with a taco would run you out of town. It would be sacrilege."
After moving to Tucson as a teen, the first place I really felt like I was part of the city was in the lobby of St. Mary’s, waiting patiently alongside what seemed to be a perfect cross section of the city to get our daily bread. (My order is the cheese enchilada combo with a birria taco — I take the meat out of the corn shell and put it in the sauce.)
Whenever I have lived elsewhere, my parents have shipped tortillas out from Tucson in care packages. I’m not alone — this is a robust tradition for many who have spent time away.
“There are legendary stories of Northern Mexicans going to New York or London or Canada for opportunities, for university, and their parents sending them flour tortillas in the mail, because there’s such an attachment to the flavor,” said Alvarez.
“Flour tortillas are unique to Tucson because they are unique to Sonora, in a relationship that supersedes the border,” she said. When Spanish colonizers came to the region five hundred years ago, they introduced wheat to Indigenous groups, who at the time had lacked a winter crop. The Sonoran wheat had an unusually high elasticity in its protein, making a perfectly stretchy tortilla.
“[Sonorense, Tucsonense] call it a burro because it’s an object of cargo. You would put on a donkey lots of things you need to transport. A burro, a burrito, becomes a sort of holding, where you can pile up a real hearty meal,” Alvarez said.
Although the heritage Sonoran wheat fell out of favor with the industrialization of agriculture, home cooks and tortillerias across Tucson have been maintaining a special texture in their dough that mimics the Sonoran wheat’s unmatched stretchiness.
“When Tucson Meet Yourself started in the 70s, it was a novelty to have a home cook demonstrating how she made a tortilla. It’s about the feel of the dough — she’d touch it and say, it needs a little more water,” Alvarez said. “You could Google any recipe, but ultimately it’s more of an art than a science.”
While Tucsonans love La Estrella and Alejandro’s tortillas, I wanted to experience the fullest range of tortillerias de harina across town. I was especially delighted by Mendez Bakery’s tender layers, which recall the richness of laminated pastry dough, and the sturdiness of Tortilleria de Don Juan’s tortillas, which can contain the prodigious juices of their marinated bistec de ranchera.
Toward the end of our interview, Alvarez remarked: “We haven’t spoken enough about how delicious flour tortillas are.” She paused, a smile ringing in her tone. “Especially with butter.”
In Alphabetical Order
Note: Prices for a dozen tortillas occurred in a tight range. Small tortillas typically cost between $1.50 and $3; medium tortillas cost $2 to $4; large tortillas $3 to $5.
Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory
Location: 5330 S. 12th Ave.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. | Saturday-Sunday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Anita Street Market
Location: 849 N. Anita Ave.
Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. | Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Specialties: Their red chile burrito is infamous. Their breakfast burrito was Andi's pick for best in Tucson. During a vegetarian kick, I once ordered their calabacitas burrito when everyone else went with meat filling. Please don't repeat my mistake.
Location: 2013 S. Fourth Ave.
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tortilleria Don Juan
Location: 1924 S. Fourth Ave.
Hours: Weekdays, 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. | Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. | Sunday, 7 a.m. to noon.
Specialties: Don Juan's serves hand–sized burritos in Ziploc sandwich bags. Two will be of a meat of your choice (choose the bistec de ranchera, or whatever is coming hot off the grill). The third is a simple, palate–cleansing bean burrito. Their full-size burros are made with the same component parts, but offer much more meat at a larger price tag.
Tortilleria Doña Esperanza
Location: 2432 S. Fourth Ave.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Specialties: Doña Esperanza's offers cookie-like hand pies, filled with funky, sweet cajeta, if you're looking for a sweet bite.
La Estrella Bakery
Hours: South 12th | Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Market San Agustin | Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Specialties: La Estrella's tortillas are good. Their donuts, however, are singular. Pair with a cochata from Seis at MSA for a perfect afternoon treat.
Tortillas de Harina Linda
Location: 2115 S. Third Ave.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Location: 425 W. Irvington Road
Hours: Thursday-Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Good to know: Because Jalisco is a restaurant foremost, they charge per tortilla.
La Mesa Tortillas
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Specialties: La Mesa serves red chile and green chile burritos and tamales as well as tortillas.
Location: 1219 S. Sixth Ave.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Specialties: In addition to their practically laminated tortillas, Mendez Bakery makes delicious pan dulce. Try the ones with fruit filling — my favorite is a dry shell with sticky pineapple-citrus goo in the middle. The moisture from the filling brings the crust to life. Better than pie. Bonus: This bakery is the former home of the original iconic Le Caves.
Mi Casita Tortilla
Location: 4439 S. Sixth Ave.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
La Palma Tortilla Factory
Location: 3624 N Oracle Rd
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. | Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Location: 2418 N. Craycroft Road
Hours: Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. | Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Specialties: With a na.m.e like The Quesadillas, their specialty may be self–evident. Try the mesquite–grilled carne asada.
St. Mary’s Mexican Food
Location: 1030 W. St. Marys Road
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. | Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Specialties: Don't bother with anything that isn't made with their house tortilla, which must be made with lard from heaven. It has an extra punch of flavor I miss everywhere else. Like many St. Mary's devotees, I think my order is what's best: the cheese enchilada combo with sides of rice and beans. Mix everything in the sauce. Add the birria from their taco. Toss the shell; sip on your horchata. Life is good in Tucson.
Location: 614 N. Grande Ave.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Specialties: My vegetarian boyfriend swears by their cauliflower burrito. The cauliflower filling has mysteriously run out every time I've attempted to try it. What a coincidence!
Tania’s Flour Tortillas
Hours: Drexel | Tuesday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sahuarita | Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Location: 1755 W Ajo Way
Hours: Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.