Flour tortillas have a bit of a reputation: In certain circles in the U.S., they’re thought of as inauthentic, with no rightful place in the Mexican food canon. For Michael de la Torre, the Berkeley-based chef behind the pop-up Xulo, nothing could be further from the truth. So, he’s on a mission to teach as many people as possible about the pleasures of a good handmade flour tortilla.
De la Torre’s flour tortillas, including a version made with olive oil and another with grass-fed butter, will be available for purchase via Xulo’s website for pickup in Berkeley this Friday, December 18 — and on a weekly basis moving forward. The tortillas are priced at $9 for a dozen.
A graduate from UC San Diego with a degree in ethnic studies, de la Torre has always been fascinated with origin stories and the mingling of cultures, especially his own Mexican and Italian upbringing. His mother cooked traditional Italian recipes from her grandparents, immigrants from Calabria, Italy. His grandmother, whose parents immigrated from the Mexican state of Sonora, was the one who taught him how to make flour tortillas.
“I grew up eating her tortillas, made with manteca (pork fat) at first, and later, with vegetable oil,” de la Torre says. “They were perfect.”
De la Torre’s grandmother made flour tortillas by hand for nearly 50 years, using a steel pipe — a wedding gift from her father — as a rolling pin. So, when de la Torre hears people questioning the “authenticity” of the flour tortilla, he feels a strong obligation to educate people about their true history, which goes back some 500 years in Northern Mexico, where flour tortillas are a treasured part of the local cuisine — a result of combining the wheat brought over by the Spanish conquistadors with the flatbread-making techniques of other immigrant groups (from Germany and Lebanon, for instance).
“To say [the flour tortilla is] inauthentic because it’s only been around here for 500 years is like saying a margherita pizza isn’t authentic to Italy because it has tomatoes in it,” de la Torre says. “[Tomatoes] are a New World ingredient that have only been available to the rest of the world for 500 years. There are innumerable examples of ingredients and dishes that are the result of cultures crossing, sharing, and ultimately blending their traditions into new ones.”
When the shelter-in-place ordinance went into effect back in March, de la Torre had just moved to Palm Springs, where he was born, along with his wife and son. He had just started his company, Xulo (pronounced “choo-lo”) — a name he chose as a play on the Spanish word “chulo” (meaning “cute” or “handsome”), and as an homage to his one-and-a-half-year-old son, Cayo. With the pandemic raging, the pop-up struggled to gain momentum with the pandemic and in a new community. After only six months, de la Torre moved back to the Bay Area and found work as a personal chef and as a pizzaiolo at June’s Pizza.
Xulo began first as a pop-up for tacos árabes, or Arab tacos — a perfect example of the internal dialogue between de la Torre’s Mexican and Mediterranean roots. “Mexiterranean is the term I came up with to define the experience I’m having of being nestled into both these worlds,” de la Torre says.
Currently, though, the chef is focusing all of his efforts on offering his handmade, par-cooked flour tortillas by the dozen through Xulo.net. The par-cooked tortillas will keep for weeks in the fridge, an essential benefit during the current pandemic. In the new year, he hopes to offer larger tortillas for burritos as well.
Each week, de la Torre makes one batch of tortillas with olive oil and another batch with a rotating flavor such as duck fat, schmaltz, or grass-fed butter. “The olive oil tortillas are the most personally meaningful to me because they directly represent my mixed Mexican and Italian background,” de la Torre says. “They also have the most pronounced flavor that you don’t really find anywhere else.”
The tortillas are a far cry from the thick, highly processed white flour tortillas on the shelves at the grocery store: They’re thin, supple, fragrant, and refreshingly irregular in size — truly made by hand. While the tortillas are the perfect vessel for various taco fillings, de la Torre recommends first trying them on their own, fresh off the griddle, in order to truly savor their texture and flavor.
“For the first time this year, we finally have some forward momentum and can feel just how excited folks are to be discovering and supporting burgeoning businesses,” de la Torre says. “Right now, it’s all about keeping expectations low and working one day at a time to realize the dream. There is so much out of our control, so we focus on what we can control, the food, and put our all into it.”
Xulo’s tortillas can be pre-ordered via xulo.net.