Tuesday, 08 October 2013 00:00

Johnson City tortilleria offers up a familiar Mexican favorite Featured

Written by Carter Giegerich
José Velasco gets his tortilla press fired up before the tortilleria opens for business. José Velasco gets his tortilla press fired up before the tortilleria opens for business. Carter Giegerich

The tortilla is such a ubiquitous part of Mexican cuisine that, sometimes, it can get taken for granted. While a steaming portion of grilled chicken or steak steals center stage, the noble tortilla provides the perfect, understated backdrop. One man who hasn't forgotten about the importance of a fine tortilla is José Velasco, the owner of Tortilleria Familiar El Arriero. When Velasco opened the tortilleria's doors five years ago, he wanted to fill Johnson City's consistent demand for tortillas, and he wanted them made right.

 “We really only have authentic, Mexican tacos,” says Ricardo, Velasco's 16-year-old son. “A lot of restaurants don't do that, but we have just basic, authentic food.”

The smooth, white tortillas that have made their way into many chain restaurants across the country, while styled after their maize-based cousins, are not the real deal. They use wheat flour as their base, which didn't make its way to this continent until the Europeans arrived.

Old-school Mexican tortillas are made from corn flour, and this method predates wheat's arrival by centuries, according to Food Reviews International, a journal that focuses on food and how it affects everyday life.

Velasco says that the store makes between 60 and 80 pounds of tortillas a day, most of which are sold to families in the area. This is one of the main roles the store plays in the community – tortillas are a staple for many families, and Velasco is one of the few people in this area making them available in mass quantities while sticking to a traditional corn recipe.

In the age of large corporations, Velasco has managed to carve out the type of mom-and-pop business that has all but disappeared.

Every morning, Velasco is up and making tortillas by 9 a.m. to satisfy such large demand. He mixes  masa corn flour with water, and kneads it with a special machine into dough. The corn dough is then transferred to a press, which rapidly dispenses and flattens balls of the dough. A belt then carries the tortillas to be cooked. They're cooled as they move along a second belt before emerging from the machine as a row of uniform tortillas, which are kept warm until they're sold later in the day.


Tortilleria Flour 0


These authentic corn tortillas, along with many harder-to-find ingredients and specialty foods, are a big part of what keeps the store up and running. There are drinks, and spices, and countless varieties of dried peppers that can't be found at larger chains.

According to Velasco, though, the business didn't really take off until the shop started offering tacos and other Mexican fare, served up fresh in the store.

“We started with tortillas and the grocery, but that was small money,” says Velasco. Now, the store's income depends more on the steady stream of customers stopping in for a bite to eat than those who are picking up tortillas.

Velasco is optimistic about the success the business has seen since it opened in 2008, and he says he hopes the business continues to expand as it has thus far.

“I want to open another store,” says Velasco, although he acknowledges that, in today's economy, this may be wishful thinking. He has considered another store in Johnson City or a surrounding community, but he says that opening  another store is currently just something to work toward.

There's no denying that the store has taken off since it first opened up. Lunch time usually sees a steady stream of people, young and old, stopping in for a quick bite to eat.

“They're very friendly, and their tacos are the best in town. It's a great family business,” said Monica Safis, a Johnson City resident who says the tortilleria is her go-to restaurant for Mexican food.

Preserving the culinary historyTortilleria Assembly Line of his native country isn't the only tradition Velasco has upheld, either. In the age of large corporations, Velasco has managed to carve out the type of mom-and-pop business that has all but disappeared.

“It makes my family stronger, and keeps us together,” says Velasco, who lived in Comitán, Mexico before moving to the United States. Velasco's wife, Rosalinda, helps run the store, along with Ricardo. Velasco also says that he hopes to get his three younger sons involved once they're old enough.

Ricardo also enjoys the atmosphere provided by working in the family business.

“I don't feel as pressured. I don't have to worry about bills,” said Ricardo with a laugh, comparing his job to one outside of his family's business.

Ricardo currently attends Science Hill High School, but he is planning on going to college in the fall of 2015. He says he'd like to go somewhere close to home, like East Tennessee State University or University of Tennessee. He plans to continue working with his family if he can, which seems to be a relief for his dad.

“I'd like to keep it in the family, for now,” says Velasco.

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