I’ve lived in San Antonio for about six years and understand Fiesta is a big deal, I’ve just never been.
So when I was given this assignment by The Tacoist, to tell the story of Maria’s Tortillas before the start of A Night in Old San Antonio, I decided it might be best to actually go and wait in line and taste the tortillas for myself.
For those of you who don’t know, Maria’s Tortillas is one of NIOSA’s most popular booths. It was founded by Maria Luisa Ochoa, who was housekeeper to Ethel Harris, San Antonio Conservation Society president from 1951-1953. NIOSA is the society’s largest fundraiser every year.
The booth debuted in the early 1950s after Harris enlisted Ochoa to make tortillas for NIOSA, according to Ochoa’s obituary in the San Antonio Express-News. And that time, each tortilla sold for 15 cents.
So I was looking forward to tasting this fabled delicacy.
Last night when I entered La Villita, I was in a crabby mood after paying $20 to park.
If you don’t know where La Villita is, it’s not too hard to find. Just follow the hordes this time of year.
At 5:40 p.m., there aren’t lines to get in and the festivities are in full swing. The crowd is large enough to fill the streets of La Villita, as people walk around with kabobs and chickens on a stick in one hand and an alcoholic beverage in the other.
Most guests wear colorful Fiesta-themed halos with ribbons streaming down and hats decorated with medals and flowers. There are quite a few people wearing Spurs paraphernalia, likely because the game is later in the evening.
As I make my way to the Haymarket area, where Maria’s is located, I notice the booth — several booths, actually — already buzzing with activity. Older Hispanic women wear pink and black Mexican Puebla blouses and work on risers that put them above the booths where customers are served. The ladies are put on display for everyone to see as they tirelessly pat the masa and cook the tortillas.
Down below, volunteers add cheese and red salsa to the tortillas before they are distributed to patient customers.
The Hispanic ladies are a good sign. I learned there was a time when volunteers, not the older women, made the tortillas.
In 2014, the NIOSA chairman at the time decided to try something new and use volunteers to make the tortillas, rather than the pros who had long since been doing it after Ochoa died in 1987.
NIOSA’s media coordinator, Jeanne Albrecht, said a mistake was made in doing so and the replica tortillas only lasted about one or two days before the older women were back — and have continued to be.
At first, looking around, I notice the line doesn’t seem too bad — definitely long, but nothing too crazy. As I make my way towards what I thought was the end of the line, I’m directed by people already waiting, saying “the back of the line’s that way” as they point to the other half of the line I hadn’t seen.
My eyes widen as I realize the line loops around into a U and the end of the line is parallel to its front.
After standing in it for some time, I hear “Oh my God, is this the line?” and “This is crazy!” often. I feel a sense of seniority at this point. Every now and then someone asks me if this is the line to Maria’s Tortillas; I tell them it is and they respond with a look of dread.
People often jump out of line to grab a beer or more food and then return. I assume that’s to satisfy their hunger as they wait in line for the tortillas. It’s actually a good idea, but unfortunately for me I didn’t have anyone to hold my place in line.
Since this was my first NIOSA, I wasn’t really sure what to expect since everything I’d heard about it had been through word of mouth or seen through pictures.
Honestly, it’s really nothing too special. I mean, it’s great and seems like a good time, but I’m from the Valley and we have festivals similar to this back home. Sombrero Fest in Brownsville and the late RioFest in Harlingen (rest in peace) have similar atmospheres to NIOSA; NIOSA is just larger.
That’s not a knock on the event or the people who enjoy it. Just an observation. After all, I had a good time even though I went just for a couple of tortillas.
After about 30 minutes in line, people have walked in front of me to get through about 40 times. I’m exaggerating, but it sure seems like 40. For some reason, I seem to be the only one they don’t mind getting in front of to get by. Maybe I’m just a friendly looking guy?
A band is staged right next to Maria’s and the singer constantly checks to make sure the crowd is having a good time. By the fourth or fifth time, I’m kind of annoyed by it; I’m just grumpy I guess. Maybe it has to do with the constant flow of people brushing past me, or the parking, which I still can’t seem to drop. I’m just thinking this tortilla better be worth it.
After about 45 minutes, I’m not sure if the line is moving because people are being served or if people are leaving to get food or beer elsewhere. Either way, it’s moving and I’m happy.
People keep nudging me — now with kabobs and fried pork chops on sticks and I keep thinking I’m going to get stabbed or poked on accident.
A woman named Liz and her husband are my line buddies throughout this wild ride that is the line for Maria’s Tortillas.
Liz says they sell these same tortillas at El Jarro De Arturo on San Pedro Avenue, but that they aren’t as good as they are at NIOSA. She says it might be the freshness and the overall setting of the festival that lifts them.
Liz and her husband are some of the people who hop in and out of line to get food and drinks throughout the wait. She keeps fumbling her food and dropping some here and there.
She drops a piece of meat from her kabob, then one of her fried mushrooms bites it. Shortly after complaining about dropping said mushroom, she drops another. Poor Liz.
She says she’s been coming to NIOSA for a while now, not remembering exactly how long though. She looks forward to Maria’s and it’s one of the highlights of NIOSA for her.
The band starts playing Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and I’m really hoping these tortillas are worth it. I’m not a fan of country at all, and the woman in front of me nonchalantly line dances by herself.
I know, I’ve never been to NIOSA in the six years I’ve lived in San Antonio, and I dislike country music, but I swear I’m a native Texan.
After an hour, I finally make it to the front of the line. I have my tickets ready to go and before one of the volunteers could finish asking me how many tortillas I want, I signal for three.
And now the time has come to taste one of these renowned treats.
The yellow corn tortilla was thick, but soft, almost like a stress ball — a tortilla stress ball. The cheese melted quickly and was flavorful; the salsa was tasty and fresh.
Unfortunately, I’m no food critic. The extent of my culinary knowledge goes as far as: “this taste’s good/bad” and “yup, that’s salt alright.”
Nevertheless, it was good. That’s all that matters.
After I finished my tortillas, booth chair Dolores “Dee” Doss took the time to speak with me.
This was Doss’s first year working at Maria’s, but she said she’s been a part of NIOSA for many years.
According to Doss, the ladies who make the tortillas are contracted through Labor On Demand.
One of the ladies, Martha Cantu Gonzalez, has been working at the booth for 20 years. Doss said she’s the backbone of the group.
“She’ll kind of tell the girls who are helping her how to make the tortillas . . . when to put the butter, and how much water to put on the masa so it doesn’t dry up,” Doss said.
The masa comes prepared, but behind the booth volunteers knead it into softball-sized spheres for pressing.
On Tuesday night, Doss said she received 320 pounds of masa and that they would sell about 4,200 tortillas each night of NIOSA.
“We follow a recipe that’s been in existence since the beginning,” Doss said. “We cannot change it.”
Doss said the NIOSA committee has the recipe for the salsa, but couldn’t share it since it’s a secret.
I left the festivities shortly after I ate my tortillas pleasantly surprised. I have to say it was worth the hype.
From the first bite to my last, all I could think of was younger me sitting at the table at my grandma’s house eating her tortillas, or the days my family would take trip down to Matamoros and eat at the local taquerias and street vendors.
My only complaint is that I wanted more between the tortilla. More cheese and more salsa. I heard some people bought fajitas from the booth next to Maria’s and combined them for the ultimate taco. I kind of wish I had done that.
— Wally Perez
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