A five-foot aluminum machine out of Blade Runner torches the air with a blue flame. That blue flame, powered by a propane tank, spins like a rickety lightbulb above a long steel plancha. The plancha takes up 80 percent of the lanky machine. It's long and smooth and looks kind of like a treadmill with a metal box on one end. The blue flame projects onto a face of this box. When a lever near the blue flame is cranked, the box shoots a formed, partly cooked tortilla down onto the plancha.
This contraption is the latest refinement at Tacos Chiwas, the popular Central Phoenix taqueria. Feed the machine a dough ball, and with some human help you will get flour tortillas.
Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez of Tacos Chiwas have won praise for their corn tortillas. Tacos Chiwas and its husband-and-wife owners both have roots in the Chihuahua state of Mexico. As Phoenicians know from downing Sonoran Mexican food, the northern Mexican states—Chichuaha being one—are better known for flour tortillas. There is an ancient tradition of flour in these parts.
"This was our goal from the beginning," Holguin says. "To make flour tortillas."
Tacos Chiwas started making its own flour tortillas last week. Nadia makes every single tortilla by hand (with a little machine help). She makes a 300-tortilla batch every other day. Each tortilla ten inches in diameter. They come with quesadillas and burritos.
The tortilla machine comes from Chihuahua, from Hernandez's hometown of Soto Maynez. He says the tradition of tortilla-making in Soto Maynez, once common to every family, has now largely been relegated to the hands of the town's professional tortilla maker. This tortilla maker uses a large machine to shape dough into tortillas, and then to cook those tortillas to perfection.
Recently, Hernandez met with the tortilla cognoscenti of his hometown. They hooked him up with the custom-made machine.
But Tacos Chiwas' flour tortillas don't begin with blue flame and aluminum. They begin with Holguin.
It took Holguin three months and about 15 test batches to nail the dough. She starts with a blend of 70% high-gluten flour ("the flour Chris Bianco uses for his pizza") and 30% White Sonora Wheat.
"I want my tortillas to be chewy and tender at the same time," she says of the blend. Holguin found that 100% high-gluten flour created too much chew. So she kept searching for the right mixture. She and Hernandez are perfectionists, which is why their food is so good.
The flour is milled at Pane Bianco. Often, milling occurs less than three hours before Holguin begins.
She dumps the flour blend, shortening, and salt into a stand mixer. The mixer hums. With a careful eye, she pours in warm water and evaporated milk. How much? It depends. Because she skips the usual standardized industrial flour for more variable local products, the amount of moisture needed to yield the ideal tortilla dough varies. Hernandez says it varies based on "how thirsty the flour is."
After resting the dough, shaping individual balls, and resting some more, we're ready for the machine.
Firing up the device takes at least ten minutes. Hernandez flips on the gas, and crouching with a lighter ignites a series of flames as you would ignite a gas grill. This heats up the plancha—the treadmill-looking steel griddle at the base of the metal box the dough will go in. The blue flame ignites, projecting into the box. A sucking sound rips the air like a fighter jet.
Hernandez touches the hot aluminum of the machine.
He feels for readiness.
"The more you do the process," he says, "the more it feels like someone talking to you." (When molding earlier, Holguin said, "I love to feel the tortilla.")
He drops in a test ball, pulls a crank, the flame roars, and a tortilla skids onto the plancha. Hernandez studies the tortilla. He gently skims it across the hot steel. "Warmer," he says, and we wait. While we do, he notes that these tortillas will be available at Roland's Market, the eatery the two will soon be opening with Chris Bianco.
Once the tortilla machine gets hot enough, the couple, with the aid of a third employee shaping dough, makes the day's batch of 300 flour tortillas. It's a noisy ballet of dough, fire, and steel.
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It would be about a billion times easier to simply buy flour tortillas. You wouldn't have to deal with sourcing flour, finding the right blend, perfecting the recipe, resting dough, shaping it, resting it again, heading to Chihuahua to get a nifty machine made, buying propane for that machine, hooking up the propane, lighting each section of the plancha, firing the blue flame, setting it all to the right heat, feeding in correctly shaped dough, cranking a lever, spacing out the tortillas on the plancha, flipping them at the optimal time, taking them off when kissed with the right brownness, and cleaning the machine after 300 flour tortillas are made.
But then, you know, they wouldn't taste so damn good.
Tacos Chiwas. 1923 E McDowell Road; 602-358-8830.
Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.