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In City Heights, certain things are ubiquitous. Rattling wire pushcarts, for example. Little red stains on the sidewalk (more on both of these in future posts). Another is the smiling face of a little girl wearing two long, dark braids. Her picture is on the front of corn tortilla packets sold in mom and pop markets throughout City Heights — and as far away as Escondido.
You could assume her name is Lily, since the tortillas come from a tortilla shop called Tortilleria Lily, according to the package.
But I couldn’t assume, so I paid a visit this morning. Tortilleria Lily is a bright green and purple and orange building that sits at 43rd Street and University Avenue in City Heights. When you walk by — or drive by with your windows open — your nostrils catch the wafting aroma of corn cooking.
Inside, Joe Bañuelos was tending a line of customers picking up a package or two of tortillas, which are made in-house every day. Bañuelos is the tortilleria’s manager. His aunt and uncle own it.
And Lily, it turns out, is their youngest daughter. She’s in her mid-30s now, but the picture was taken when she was a girl, and placed on the packaging when Bañuelos’ aunt and uncle, Delia and Francisco Amezquita, opened the tortilla shop 22 years ago in a little building down the street.
“It started with one machine,” Bañuelos said. “Three years later they moved here. There’s three ovens now.”
Tortilleria Lily is one of those City Heights institutions that has become part of the daily lives of this community’s Latino population. From 5 a.m. until 2 p.m., men and women, young and old, stream through with push carts and strollers and plastic bags to pick up their daily few dozen, still warm from the oven. If you can’t make it to the store’s sales counter, you can find its tortillas for sale at the fruit bar across the street and at the corner market a block away, where you can also get your taxes done.
Lily sells standard-sized corn tortillas in packets of 33 for $1.45 and 110 for $3.55.
The tortilleria sells in wholesale, too. That makes up about 60 percent of its sales. But with the economic downturn, Bañuelos said, restaurants and stores cut back. What didn’t slow was the daily stream of Mexican families who come through for the tortillas that are staples at every meal.
“We get little old ladies who come in everyday,” Bañuelos said, “and buy their small packet. That’s why we’ve been able to survive. It’s that part of Mexican culture where they don’t go to the store and stock up for a week or a month. They go to the market everyday to buy what they need fresh.”
“They taste like the tortillas from home,” Erick Posadas, who had just picked up a pack of 110, said in Spanish as he walked away from the store. He’s bought them for 10 years, since he moved from Mexico to City Heights.
“People prefer Lily tortillas because of the taste. For a lot of families, if there are no Lily tortillas, we don’t eat,” he said. Posadas lives close to Murphy’s Market, a medium-sized market that also makes its own tortillas in smaller quantities. But they’re not the same, he said.
“If I need them, I’ll go buy a small pack at Murphy’s until I can get a big one from Lily,” Posadas said.
But the number of local markets that make their own tortillas has grown over the years, Bañuelos said, so, though still successful, business at Lily has tapered off.
When his uncle opened the store in the late 1980s, he was motivated by the streams of Mexicans who left City Heights for Tijuana to buy their freshly-made tortillas there. He decided the neighborhood needed its own store.
It expanded to its current location after just three years. In its back room, roasted corn is poured into two oversized grinders that turn the kernels into dough. The dough runs through machines that smooth it into sheets and cuts the tortillas out at an alarming speed, then runs them through an oven. At the end of a conveyor belt, five or six women pack them into plastic bags.
“When all three machines are running, we make about 320 tortillas a minute, for about 10 hours a day,” Bañuelos said. Which is lucky for Mexican residents of City Heights seeking out the taste of home, he said. “With the line at the border now, I don’t know if you could still go just for tortillas.”
— ADRIAN FLORIDO