Last weekend, I was in Tucson for the city's annual book festival, and I made sure to bash traditional Cal-Mex at every opportunity as a bastard child of Sonoran cuisine. It wasn't just me playing up to the hometown crowd, folks: our chimichangas are Styrofoam compared to theirs, California machaca is a stringy glop compared to the glories of air-dried carne seca, and we don't even have caldo de queso, for chrissakes!
The biggest difference, though, is in the flour tortillas. Ours are simply vile save those of Rubalcava's Market, but those from the Sonora region are like manna, given that it's the birthplace of the tortilla. And the queen of the flour tortillas is the sobaqueras, the gargantuan tortillas so named because they can reach up to one's armpits if extended over a forearm.
Since I was in town, I decided to seek out the most famous sobaqueras in town, those made by St. Mary's Mexican Food in West Tucson.
This ramshackle place has had numerous national write-ups, including a piece in the Los Angeles Times a couple of years ago, so I initially feared it would be all hype. Not even close: their carne seca chimi (their name, not mine) was flaky, ethereal, and gargantuan. I bought two packs of their sobaqueras (they just call them "large" tortillas), put them inside my carry-on bag, returned home, and put them on my comal.
LOOK AT HOW BIG THAT TORTILLA IS. You can only see the outline of my big comal in the above picture. It's not even a full sobaquera, merely being as wide as my forearm from my wrist to just past my elbow. It's so huge, though, that I didn't even know how to properly cook it–and that's the only problem with this tortilla, a problem that'll only exist for folks who aren't from the lands of the saguaro.
See, this tortilla's biggest problem is also its most remarkable feature: while it's huge, it's also as translucent as tissue paper, so thin it is. Yet if you cook it properly, it won't tear and will hold in whatever you stuff in it. But you need to be careful in heating it up–because it's so thin, it'll cook fast. And the actual taste: perfection. Buttery, light, magnificent. Heat it up, fold it into one big pile, and tear apart as needed to eat your food. God, why can't we make good flour tortillas here?!
Grade: A. If you're ever in Tucson (and you know that one of your neighbors has a cousin who goes to the U of A for
the endless frat parties their education), get a bag. But treat St. Mary's sobaqueras with the same care you would a 1920s-era Packard.
St. Mary's Mexican Food, 1030 W. St Marys Rd., Tucson, (520) 884-1629.