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The Corn Tortillas of Chicago: How Many Brands Are Available?

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: The Corn Tortillas of Chicago: How Many Brands Are Available?

[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

When you love Mexican food as much as I do, you tend to go through an astonishing number of corn tortillas. Over the years, I've turned into something of a tortilla hunter, able to scavenge through the boxes until I find a pack that is warm—an obvious indication that they have been made recently. Unlike the brittle old ones, these are soft and fragrant, and the next best thing to making tortillas at home. Since temperature was the most important attribute, I never cared too much about the brand I was picking. That was until one day I looked at all my options, realized they were all warm, and wondered what to do next.

Are there actual differences between the many brands of corn tortillas in Chicago?

Unlike many other foodstuffs, corn tortillas don't travel well, and for the most part they need to be eaten on the same day they are made or else they turn into those brittle old ones I was mentioning above. And apparently Chicago is awesome at making tortillas. At least that's the opinion of Rick Bayless who said the following to Andrew Zimmern on an episode of Bizarre Foods: "What a lot of people don't know about Chicago is that we have the greatest concentration of artisanal tortilla factories in the world."

Considering that Rick Bayless has been a booster of Chicago for a while now, it's tempting to take the quote with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially since he's saying that our fair city beats Mexico City at its own game. (Though, I should point out, there is a lot of corn around here and other authorities do agree.) But Bayless is right that a number of factories use stone ground corn for their tortillas.

I decided to do a quick search to see how many different brands of corn tortillas I could find. Unfortunately, much like compiling the natural casing hot dog map, it's one that has proven especially hard to figure out definitively. Some tortillerias package up their tortillas for sale, while others only make fresh masa to sell to restaurants. (You'd think that there would be some massive list online, but I have yet to find one. Hopefully, this gets the ball rolling.) In the end, I just decided to focus on corn tortillas that I can easily find at Mexican grocery stores and those that I could easily purchase at factories.

I visited three factories and three Mexican grocery stores, picking up as many kinds of corn tortillas as I could find. I also purchased various versions of the same brand, as I noticed their ingredients differed. I found the most luck at La Casa Del Puebla in Pilsen and Carniceria Jimenez in Logan Square.

The Ingredients: Paper vs. Plastic

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While I didn't want to necessarily judge the tortillas (this is just a collection of tortilla factories for now), I did learn a lot about each one by simply checking out the number of ingredients. Along the way I noticed an important distinction between tortillas wrapped in paper and those wrapped in plastic. All the tortillas wrapped in paper only had corn, water, and lime (calcium hydroxide). Those in plastic usually added a bunch of other things to "preserve freshness," as one label said. In fact, some brands had both paper and plastic versions. Though each looked identical, the ingredients were often different.

The Color

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For the most part, the tortillas all had the same whitish color. The big exception was Sabinas, which definitely had more of a yellow hue. It was also the only tortilla I was able to purchase directly from the factory. Interestingly, it was also one of the few tortillas wrapped in plastic that still only had three ingredients (corn, water, lime).

Check out all the ones tortillas in the slideshow. Also, I know that I'm missing some, including the massive Azteca brand, which is made in the suburbs, but please let me know any brands of local corn tortillas that you think should be on the list.

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