The La Tortilleria story
Over the past seven years, Gerardo Lopez and Diana Hull have been shaping Australia’s Mexican food culture, away from the Tex Mex interpretations and towards true Mexican cuisine originating from Mexican home cooking and street stalls.
Gerardo grew up in Mexico City and used to spend his days with his grandmother, following her around the central markets as she visited her favourite food stalls and conversed with the stall holders. Pina had worked in her father’s restaurant since she was 5 years old, even operating the till(!) and had spent her whole life since building a community around her. As Gerardo explains, ‘she was so lovely to everyone’.
When Gerardo first moved to Melbourne he found himself constantly cooking for his new friends in order to show them what real Mexico was all about, through the language of food and friendship.
Gerardo explains, ‘the first thing you miss when you live away from home is the food. Tacos are a part of everyday life in Mexico. In the same way an Australian would say ‘let’s go for a coffee’, Mexicans say ‘let’s go for a taco’.
Gerardo himself embodies everything it means to be a proud Mexican; hard working, passionate, and always with a smile on his face.
Within moments of meeting each other through a friend, Gerardo and Diana were engrossed in conversation about Mexican street food. Diana had spent six months studying anthropology in Mexico, particularly the indigenous cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs, who had discovered the secret to unlocking the nutrients in maize by cooking it in water from the limestone-rich rivers.
It wasn’t long before the two friends set about opening an authentic Mexican eatery in the back streets of Kensington in order to bring true Mexican street food to Melbournians.
The pair held working bees with family and friends to get the place up to scratch on a shoestring budget, and began the search for local ingredients that would stay true to the street stalls of Mexico City.
At the time, real tortillas made the traditional way from just two ingredients – corn and salt, ground into fresh masa dough then pressed into a tortilla, didn’t exist and the pair knew that it was the tortillas that underpinned the entire cuisine. After months spent tracking down Australian farmers who grew the starchier maize required for the masa dough, and importing tortilla equipment from Mexico that would create tortillas the same way that indigenous Mexicans had been making stone-ground tortillas since 1200 BC, the two friends were ready to begin crafting tortillas the Nixtamal way.
The artisan process of making tortillas involves soaking the maize overnight in lime, rinsing it with water and grinding the corn kernels with volcanic Mexican rock in order to create the dough that would be pressed into tortillas. The hand-felt daily tweaking of the process in terms of soaking times, grinding textures and even the number of times the corn is stirred can change from day to day depending on the weather, the seasonality of the corn and ‘a million other things’. Like most artisan foods, it’s based on a simple process that takes a very long time to master.
As Gerardo explains ‘Corn is gold, it’s life.’ So much so that traditional Mexican cuisine, underpinned by the humble tortilla, has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage food.
Even the tomatillos used to make the restaurant’s salsa verde were found through the ‘Mexican grapevine,’ sourced from a Mexican lady with a backyard plot on the outskirts of Melbourne, who would drive to meet Diana in a mid-way car park each week to deliver crates of home grown tomatillos.
Within a few weeks of opening, word had spread within the Mexican community and suddenly dozens of Mexicans began turning up each day after hearing about a place where real tortillas were being made. There were more than a few customers reduced to tears after discovering their home country’s real food here in Australia, in the back blocks of Kensington, this quiet beacon of Mexican food.
Customers would drive from the other side of Melbourne to visit the restaurant and pick up their kilogram of tortillas for the week, and soon the likes of Mamasita and Fonda came knocking on the door, asking for wholesale supply.
There were many bumps in the road, and angels that appeared out of nowhere to save the day, from the engineer who spent his Sunday welding a broken tortilla machine in exchange for tacos, to the older Mexican lady who bought her homemade tacos back to the restaurant to feed Diana on a tough day, it has been an effort from the entire community, united by the vision to bring real Mexican food to the people.
The wholesale side of supplying the tortillas to restaurants, independent supermarkets and food stores soon took off. As it turns out the age-old practice of making tortillas happened to suit modern foodie preferences of being vegan, wholegrain, and free from gluten, preservatives, GMOs and trans fats.
Today, every 3.5 seconds someone somewhere in Australia eats a La Tortilleria tortilla. These days the tortillas are made by Isaac Nava, a 4th generation nixtamal tortilla maker from Mexico, and have been awarded a Delicious Produce Award (2016). Even the La Tortilleria totopos (tortilla chips) are award-winning; taking out a gold medal and Best in Class for the snack foods category of the RASV 2019 Australian Food Awards. As Gerardo explains ‘they’re not anything like other corn chips’.
Last year Gerardo received the Mexican Federal Government’s award for Outstanding Mexican Abroad for his contribution to sharing Mexican culture in his adopted country, becoming the first Mexican in Australia to do so.
After organically attracting reviews from media, and a few appearances on various TV shows such as Food Safari and My Market Kitchen, Gerardo seized the opportunity to travel back to his home country to film This is Mexico, a series that Diana helped to research and produce, that will launch on free-to-air TV on Saturday 7 December at 6.30pm.
The new series is a nod to Gerardo’s Mexican roots, exploring the street foods of Mexico City, the markets of Oaxaca and the traditional knowledge of rural indigenous Mexicans, who hold the secrets to traditional Mexican cuisine.
La Tortilleria tortillas, totopos and tostadas can be found in local independent supermarkets and food stores across Australia, South-East Asia and New Zealand, or bought directly from the La Tortilleria eatery, 72 Stubbs Street, Kensington.