Taco Crazy

Life Inside a Sarasota Tortilleria

97 million tortillas and counting.

By Isaac Eger March 28, 2018 Published in the April 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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By 5:30 in the morning the heat, noise and sweet scent from the tortilla press machine overwhelms Tortilleria Doña Chela, a small store and taqueria located in a strip center on North Washington Boulevard. 

At the end of the machine, gathering and stacking the steaming corn pancakes, stands Maria Guadalupe Picasso, 55, the owner. Construction workers and landscapers are already lined up by the cash register for their daily fix.

Picasso and her machine churn out 1,000 pounds of tortillas a day—except for holidays—supplying 16 restaurants as well as walk-in customers. Each pound, containing about 18 tortillas, is wrapped in wax paper and sold for $1. The math works out to 18,000 tortillas a day, or more than 97 million tortillas since she started 15 years ago.

Picasso learned from her mother, Doña Chela (the store’s namesake), the art of making tortillas. “It’s the texture,” Picasso says. “There are no preservatives, only pure maiz. And our tortillas are hot and fresh.”

The machine, like Picasso, is from Mexico. At nearly 20 feet long, it takes up half the store. The steel is faded from use; its gears are exposed. It contains a clutch and a transmission, and oiled roller chains spin around sprockets on either side of the engine. A small piston that resembles the pumpjack from an oil rig spits out two tortillas per revolution. Blue flames warp the air and peak through the slatted conveyor belt that cooks the dough.

The sound of the machine is beyond unpleasant. The steel grinds and sounds like a train perpetually coming to a halt. After so many years, Picasso is unfazed. “I’m used to it,” she says.

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