Out here in Austin we refer to the defenders of the plastic bag tortillas as the “Torchy’s apologists”. Torchy’s is a local chain that puts out c-grade tacos on plastic bag tortillas. The food is prepared in a central commissary and shipped out to the satellite shops, heated and served to the public.

It is wildly popular. For every eater that makes their way to El Taco Rico (the apogee of Austin Mexican food) 5000 roll through the doors of Torchy’s or Taco Deli, another abysmal and over-crowded taco chain.

The difference between a scratch tortilla made moments before being served and a commercial grade version served up from a plastic bag is immeasurable.

It’s along the lines of the difference between a scratch stock made from roasted bones and a couple cubes of Maggi bouillon being tossed into a jug of water and called “stock”.

The making of the tortilla from scratch really speaks to the ethos of the kitchen.

It is the difference between a cook and a chef.

The former tears open a bag of Con-Agra french fries and dumps them into the fryer. The latter cuts the potato and transforms it into something far beyond its humble origin.

Why bother baking a loaf of bread and making sandwiches from that loaf when surely there’s a bread truck winding along a nearby road that could be coaxed into stopping at your restaurant and off-loading some bread?

If you’re ever in Austin and want to taste the difference between factory-made bread and scratch loaves, stop by Noble Pig. Everything in the house is made from scratch.

The best banh mi houses in town all bake their own loaves, yes you can get a decent banh mi on a factory loaf but why bother when there’s a plenitude of cafes with little Vietnamese ladies baking in-house?

It’s the difference between a cook and a chef.

My favorite quote though has to be: “No sensible restaurateur will make tortillas in-house when better ones are available fresh from a nearby tortilleria”

When did the best restaurateurs become sensible?

I’m friends with lots of chefs and restaurateurs. The best ones are far from sensible. Indeed, they’re a bit out of whack.

Food is their calling and they would no more tear open a plastic bag of tortillas and call it a day then they would buy a bag of dried pasta and dunk it into a kettle of water and call it a days work.

They make the noodles from scratch.

It’s the difference between a cook and a chef.

It’s far more “sensible” to break out the can opener and crack open a can of Wolf than it is to spend 7 or 8 hours on the stove top crafting a batch of Texas Red into being.

Sensible is the last trait I’m looking for when I’m canvassing town for the best tacos or hamburgers or barbecue or anything else.

Would a sensible person smoke a hunk of meat for 15 hours over a low flame so they could eat barbecue. No.

It’s the gloriously irrational taqueras, pit bosses and bakers whom I seek. The mad men who take the slow, difficult route in their food resulting in intense deliciousness, not some half-assed short-cut method that the public embraces and even defends.

With the dumbing down of the typical taco consumer in Austin’s palate continuing apace, local commercial manufacturer El Milagro’s product is often mistaken for homemade.

Their product is fine but is in no way homemade

I had a great conversation with Gill, a lovely taquera at local legend El Rinconsito. I broached this very subject with her a couple years ago and her response was priceless.

“Lazy” she flashed. “They are lazy”.

She’s since retired, but I think of her comments often when I’m at the window of a taco cart ordering some desebrada or carnitas.

Yeah it’s true that many restaurants don’t make their own tortillas but at the end of the day when you get a scratch-one cooking on the comal while the barbacoa sizzles on the flat top, you’re at the pinnacle.

Tortillas make a wonderful yardstick for the Mexican kitchen.

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