Tortilleria Garcia will change everything you think you know about tacos. One might assume that the highlight of a taco is the protein or the salsa, but once you take a bite of a fresh corn tortilla made by restaurant owner Omar Garcia and his team, you’ll come to understand that — if made with respect for tradition and natural ingredients — what was once a mere vessel for taco fillings is now the centerpiece of the meal. And after almost five successful years in Springdale, Tortilleria Garcia has expanded and opened a second location in College Hill to serve even more hungry Cincinnatians.
“When you go to Mexico, a tortilleria is not a place that you get meat or tacos; a tortilleria is a place where they just focus on tortillas, that’s all they do,” Garcia says. “Like, if you go into a bakery, what do you expect from a bakery? Just bread.”
But like many bakeries-turned-sandwich-shops, if you also serve things typically eaten with bread, there’s a good chance you’ll make more sales. Same thing goes for Tortilleria Garcia.
Menu options here run the gamut from tamales, nachos and burritos to tacos, rotisserie chicken and fresh corn tortillas by the pack. (Note to self: Taco Tuesdays offer $1 tacos, less than half the standard price.) Recipes are inspired by those of Garcia’s mother and grandmother and the Mexican family farm where they grew corn when he was a child.
Garcia’s tortillas all start with dried corn, which is purchased in bulk. At present he uses yellow corn but plans for blue corn tortillas are underway. First, the dried corn goes through a process called nixtamalization, where it is soaked in water and calcium and then rinsed to remove the hull. It is then ground between two stones into a supple and pillowy dough called masa (also available by the pound).
“We do it exactly the same way we’ve done it for generations in Mexico. My grandparents had a grinder, not a tortilla maker, and they’d grind the corn for everyone where we lived,” he says.
Garcia, however, does have tortilla maker, which is easy to spot while in line to order at the register (it accounted for nearly half of the College Hill restaurant’s opening budget). Its continuous functionality is essential to the entire operation and, to be certain no problems take them by surprise, it is maintained daily.
A ball of masa is placed between two mechanical rollers on the front of the tortilla maker, which portions and shapes 6-inch tortillas with the help of a rotating silicone mold. The tortillas are then carried through a heating chamber on an assembly line inside the machine, going down several levels from cooking to cooling. Finally, they slide down into a collector basket, where they’re stored until ready for use.
Garcia claims the machine can make 1,400 to 1,500 tortillas in an hour. The tortilla’s texture straight from the machine is incredible, making for a delicious snack on its own, but after they’ve fully rested, and only then, are they ready for a taco.
“I like people to try (tacos) the traditional way, where you taste the tortilla’s flavor: cilantro, onion, salsa and the lime, squeeze it on,” Garcia says.
Tortilleria Garcia’s protein options include pollo (rotisserie chicken), carnitas (pork), carne (steak) and al pastor (pork with pineapple). Everything made in-house is gluten free and, unless you specifically order meat, 100-percent vegetarian. Side options include chips (made from the tortillas, of course), salsa, an extravagant guacamole, white and Mexican-style rice, refried beans and pico de gallo. Sour cream, lettuce and all the common taco toppings are also available.
Tamales are not as popular in the Midwest as tacos, but anyone new to the dish should definitely order one. Made with the same masa as the tortillas and wrapped in corn husks, tamales are extremely portable and make an excellent take-out option. The spicy carnitas tamales with hot salsa are a perfect marriage of flavor and texture (just make sure your body is ready for some serious heat), while the pollo tamales with verde salsa are ideal for picky eaters — simple, straightforward.
Tortilleria Garcia does offer flour tortillas, but to order these would be to miss the entire point of the restaurant. Even if you think you don’t like corn tortillas, you owe it to yourself to try them here — most restaurants that make their own corn tortillas use Maseca, a popular brand of corn flour, and do not nixtamalize and grind their own corn. It has been proven time and time again, especially when it comes to food, that the easiest route does not usually yield to the best results. Thankfully, Garcia’s happy to put in the extra work.
“If you go to Kroger, the bags (of tortillas) are sitting right on the shelf without being refrigerated. The reason is because of chemicals. You’re feeding yourself chemicals; you’re not feeding yourself natural food,” Garcia says. “Ours are fresh, made with real corn, even the tamales. The texture is totally different, the taste is 100 percent different. The tortilla that we make here is softer, it tastes better. The best part of the meal is the tortilla.”
Like a bakery, this tortilleria offers tortillas to go. A two-pound pack of tortillas costs $3.99 and provides enough for 16 tacos if you use two tortillas per taco, as Garcia recommends. The tortillas have a shelf life of five to seven days.
To store them, take them home, open the package and let the tortillas cool (they’re sold warm and ready to eat). Once they’re no longer hot, wrap them back up, put them in a plastic bag and store them in the refrigerator or freezer. If frozen, they only need to defrost in the fridge. To prepare them for a meal, put them in a preheated non-stick pan and flip them every few seconds for about a minute. You’ll be pleased to find they maintain their moisture and flavor perfectly.
Tortilleria Garcia, 11774 Springfield Pike, Springdale; 5917 Hamilton Ave., College Hill, tortilleriagarcia.us