The Tortilla Triangle

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Stepping out of the Jefferson stop on the L train is an exercise in olfactory entrancement, cartoon-style. Follow the flight of stairs out of the underground, and you land nearly in the entrance of Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos at 271 Starr Street. The warm minerality of cooked corn stretches the block, and you can almost float on the curls of aroma into the factory, dreaming of the brown-specked tortillas that await you.

This neighborhood, where Bushwick and East Williamsburg overlap, is still redolent of its industrial past and present, with steel manufacturing plants, trucking depots and long and low warehouses lining Flushing Avenue. But by the 1990s a new industry had arrived: tortilla production, bringing with it the centuries-old scent of toasted maize. The neighborhood was soon dubbed the “Tortilla Triangle” for the three Mexican-owned tortilla factories strung along or near the avenue: Tortilleria Buena Vista at 219 Johnson Avenue; Tortilleria Plaza Piaxtla, now at 915 Flushing Avenue; and Tortilleria Chinantla at 975 Grand Street.

With the addition of Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos and Tortilleria Tenochtitlan 2000 at 952 Flushing Avenue, the Tortilla Triangle has been transformed into a corn-centered square, of sorts—maybe you’d even call it kernel-shaped.

Whatever you name it, the area now spits out millions of tortillas daily, representing the purchasing power of the growing local Latino community (69,000 Mexicans have moved to New York City since 2000, according to the 2008 census) and the growing national taste for the flat corn-disks (salsa did overtake ketchup as the most-purchased condiment a few years back, after all). These tortillerias offer their soft corn stacks to passersby and pedestrians, but their primary business is sales to bodegas, supermarkets and upscale Manhattan restaurants. They even send their delivery vans, now seen carrying their stacks of corn currency throughout the city, to shops in New Jersey.

For authentic tortillas, freshness and accessibility are key; competition is fierce and brand loyalties ride high. All of the tortillerias get their corn flour base, called masa, from a Maseca milling plant in Indiana—the days when most tortillerias made their own has passed, even in Mexico. But base material is where the similarities end. Production style and masa-to-water ratio creates different textures and flavors among the local brands, distinguishing tastes for the city’s increasing numbers of tortilla connoisseurs (Buena Vistas’s disks vary in thickness from stack to stack, while the tortillas of Los Hermanos have a pleasant ruddy feel), both those who come to it by nurture as well as by nature, following the city’s taco trucks and taquerias.

Many of the tortillerias, in fact, have expanded their companies to include satellite stations and sister businesses. Marcelina’s Mexican Foods, a storefront on Flushing Avenue, is an offshoot of Tortilleria Plaza Piaxtla. They import Mexican sodas and chiles, but make their own Mexican-style queso fresco, crema and hebra cheese.

Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos took on new ground when they started hawking tacos and tortas. The owner, Maurcelino Lazaro, remembers when they “sat a little carito outside of the warehouse when the weather was nice.” They eventually dragged the cart inside as a makeshift taqueria. When the craving for a bean-slathered al pastor torta struck, you would enter the warehouse and sit down at a rickety communal table, passing limes and hot sauce to hair-netted workers on their lunch break. The rhythmic metallic tings of huge masa mixers and conveyer belts peppered the sound track while women shuffled together stacks of fresh tortillas ready to bag and box.

Last September the Health Department ordered Lazaro to cut the informality, so he closed the factory for two months to make renovations. There is now a restaurant within the tortilleria: It’s almost a living diorama of a late-’70s Mexican diner, with particleboard ceilings, a long counter and mosaic tile. You can still peer in at the tortilla-making, and the carne enchilada, or spicy pork, is just as good.

The tortillas, of course, are outstanding.