Here is a handy tip: If you are in the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico, and you hear a pack of wild dogs, their barking increasing in volume, there is a very good chance they are not approaching to greet you in a friendly manner.
It was many years ago when I found myself in this predicament. For reasons that to this day escape me, I had decided to venture outside the confines of the resort area of Mazatlan. Maybe I was just tired of seeing other tourists.
So I rented a little Volkswagen convertible and headed up the mountains. This was long before cell phones or GPS. The rental company handed me a very sketchy map, and yet I still tossed caution to the wind and proceeded.
Up the winding, mountainous road I chugged, observing what seemed to be a plethora of crosses and flowers stationed along various roadside curves. As a ramshackle diesel truck spewed fumes while it nearly ran me off the road, I realized what those crosses and flowers represented: memorial markets to the less fortunate drivers and passengers who did not survive this trek.
Nonetheless, I persisted (hey, I was young and foolish). I finally ascended to a peak and decided this would be a great place to get a panoramic shot of the seaport basin below.
So I parked the car and hiked about 20 yards or so up a little dirt path. In those days, I was a photography buff and had two large Nikon SLRs dangling from my neck. That’s when I heard the dogs. By the time I spotted them, racing toward me, I realized I had a good 20 yards to get back to the car. The cameras felt like anchors around my neck, but I sprinted as fast as I could.
Fortunately, the VW started right up and I threw the shift into first, as I peered in the rear view mirror to see the pack of wild animals still coming at me like something out of a horror movie.
But somehow, in the chaos, I lost the little map. I thought about turning around and trying to just retrace my path down that winding road. But I had no desire to visit again with my canine friends and the road ahead looked straight and promising so I thought I would take a chance.
No turning back
About an hour later, it was clear this was not the right decision. Then, over the horizon, I saw the tops of a group of trucks and figured this must be some kind of rest area. Even with my very limited Spanish, I figured, I could get across “Donde esta Mazatlan?” Or something to that effect.
This truck stop was not what you might find off the U.S. Interstate system. There was no bank of fuel pumps. There was no convenience store, let alone coffee shop.
In fact, all that existed was a dirt pit where the large vehicles were parked. And off to the distance, I saw the men gathered under a sort of thatched-roof lean-to.
I approached the little hut where, before I could reach los hombres, a group of little old ladies were making tortillas. They were rolling out the dough and slapping the flattened cakes on an enormous griddle. In fact, the griddle was nothing more than a sheet of heavy steel, perhaps 4X8 feet, the kind of plate steel used to temporarily cover a hole dug by a construction crew in a road. Underneath the steal was a smoldering charcoal fire heating the metal.
The aroma of the cooking cakes with the wood smoke wafted through the air, mingling with the dirt and dust from the trucks.
I approached the ladies. They looked at me with a combination of apprehension and suspicion. I began to speak my already mutilated Spanish. They looked at me quizzically. I knew my Spanish was bad but was it totally incomprehensible? One of them spoke. And I realized she was not speaking Spanish. It was an indigenous language.
Then she handed me a tortilla. It did not come in a little basket, or covered with paper. She just handed it to me.
I reached into my pocket to offer some compensation. She gave me the international symbol for “this is on the house” waving her hands. I thanked her with a bowed head and a “gracias,” hoping at least this word of gratitude was recognized. She gave me a little smile.
I took a bite of the tortilla. Two things hit me right away: 1. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. (Those dogs worked up an appetite.) 2. This was, without a doubt, the best damn tortilla I had ever tasted.
After finishing my impromptu meal, I managed to communicate with one of the truckers and found my back to Mazatlan. I spent the remainder of the trip searching for a tortilla as good as the one in that little village. No such luck.
In search of the perfect tortilla
To this day, living in California, taking other trips to Mexico, I don’t think I have found a more savory version of this unleavened cornbread.
So, finally, I decided to give it a try and make it myself. They are quite simple to concoct;, few ingredients are needed and prep time is minimal. And once again, I relied on Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina. This is a special type of corn flour that’s been soaked in lime juice and ground very fine. It is the standard for corn tortillas.
The recipe is deceptively simple. All it takes is the flour and some hot water. Once you have made the dough and let it set for a bit, you roll it out. I found it easiest to take a small ball, flatten it and roll it with a rolling pin with a sheet of parchment paper on top.
I then used a knife to cut the flattened dough into a circle. Cooking on cast iron is best, I believe. With just a tiny bit of oil, you cook the dough for a minute or so on each side.
That’s about it. It’s still not as good as the tortilla I had in that tiny mountain village of Sinaloa, but then again, I didn’t have to risk life and limb to enjoy it, either.