Over the weekend, I ate my way through El Paso, Las Cruces and Tucson for…something. Oh, the stories I will tell, the photos I took, the people I met. For now, I want to talk about gorditas, what gabachos would probably call the Mexican pupusa and what Wikipedia stupidly calls a “double-sided corn tortilla,” which is like calling the '59 Cadillac Coupe de Ville a vehicle on four wheels.
Across the Southwest, but especially in the El Paso-Las Cruces area, gorditas are king. These stuffed masa discs (filled with meats ranging from taqueria classics like carnitas and carne asada, to New Mexico-Texas standards like brisket, carne adovada, guisados, and a hella lot jack-and-cheddar cheese) are found in fast-food restaurants, on street corners, at sit-down restaurants, former burger stands, in homes—everywhere. You can find them in Tucson and in Phoenix, although they're not as ubiquitous there.
But once you cross into Blythe and beyond, gorditas disappear from the public consciousness. WTF?
Oh, you can find them if you really try, but that's the thing: you have to try. In OC, the only specialist is Ricas Gorditas, a lonchera in SanTana. There are a couple of other restaurants in la naranja that make them, and more in Los Angeles, but they are nearly all of the informal variety: street or house vendors, food trucks or trailers, stalls at swap meets, or places frequented almost exclusively by paisas. The biggest indicator that gorditas aren't king in SoCal is that gabachos don't know what the hell they are—in other words, they haven't crossed into the mainstream. They're far more familiar with the gordita's cosmopolitan cousins, the sope and the huarache.
It's not like gorditas are a regional staple, as they're found through most of Mexico. But I'd argue that the meal reaches its apotheosis in northern Mexico, specifically in the states of Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, and (to a lesser extent) Sonora. And residents of those states have made their biggest mark on an American region's Mexican culture in the El Paso-Las Cruces area, Arizona, and a couple of other spots (tellingly, Chicago—the historical landing ground for duranguenses—has a vibrant gorditas culture). In Southern California, it's always been Jalisco and Michoacán (and more recently, Mexico City and Sinaloa) that has dominated Mexican foodways; we barely get any immigrants from Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, or Nuevo León. And while we have a chingo of zacatecanos, we're infamously penurious with sharing our cuisine.
Our lack of gorditas is a damn shame. A gordita is a beautiful thing: steamy masa crisped just so but remaining chewy, and decorated with crema and salsa, it's a wonderful breakfast and a perfect lunch. It's one of my all-time favorite meals, and I'm sad I can't recommend more places to you gentle cabrones. Here's to hoping we get more northern Mexican immigrants soon, because I don't think my mami or tías are opening a gorditas stall anytime soon at the Packing House.
Finally: Do NOT Google “Mexican gorditas” unless you want to enter a vortex of Tushy.com and Tube8. You've been warned.