Real Mexican flavors, tacos at Tortilla Real in Petaluma

Tortilla Real

address: 5 Petaluma Blvd. S.



phone: 658-1415

At first, the Tortilla Real sign at 5 Petaluma Blvd. S. appeared far too polished to be a mom-and-pop shop. Talking with co-owner and chef Luis Flores, however, we learned that this shop is just him and his brother, Jorge Flores, who also owns and operates a cake bakery business in Hayward called Don Polvoron.

Once we tasted the food at Tortilla Real, it became clear that Luis is not new to restaurants. In fact, he has a distinguished restaurant pedigree. He used his innate business sense to make sure he created a professional brand that would charm the masses, while creating a menu that will appeal to even the most discerning diners. What particularly caught our eye on the sign was the additional tagline of “Mexican Kitchen.” We immediately got the impression that this was going to be more than just a taqueria, which it is, although as we would soon find out, Luis’s tacos were the highlight of our Tortilla Real dining experience.

The first visit

The pandemic delayed our visit to Tortilla Real, but we finally snuck in for our first order to-go, with the helpful guidance of Benjamin Pavlichek. Benjamin is in the process of opening Jasper’s, a bar in Sebastopol with a heavy focus on agave liquors. He promoted Tortilla Real’s opening and seemed to visit frequently enough to offer up some good advice. As we would soon find out, narrowing down favorites at Tortilla Real is a hard thing to do. However, a few things did stand out to him — mainly that the food was very fresh and that although he loves our other local Mexican restaurant options, he felt this “little Velasco restaurant” is a breath of fresh air.

For that first order, we took Benjamin’s advice and went for the gorditas, enchiladas, carne asada and dorado chorizo tacos and two items that he was particularly enamored of — fish tacos and the Huichola de tinga. (Tinga is a particular style of chicken preparation.) We were blown away by both.

Luis’s fish taco starts with cod, which already sets it apart from most other fish tacos in town. Sure, it costs more, but after just one bite of each and every one of Tortilla Real’s dishes, we stopped looking at prices because the quality of flavors was outstanding. Luis’s fish taco includes a beer-infused batter and is topped with a light chipotle sauce, shredded cabbage and his fresh house-made salsa, and wrapped in warm, hand-made tortillas. Not surprisingly, Luis confirmed that the fish taco is one of his best sellers.

Benjamin admitted that he hadn’t heard of Huichola de tinga before, but found it to be delicious. Sure enough, we later found out from Luis that this is a dish he created, and so aptly named it after his childhood nickname, Huicho. Luis’s favorite part of a queso fundido (melted cheese, chorizo, tortillas, molcajete salsa and freshly made corn tortillas) is the cheese crust around the edges, so he decided to create a dish based on that. Huichola de tinga is Oaxaca cheese crust, shredded chicken, sour cream, salsa and freshly made corn tortillas. It is yet another dish that we will have a hard time passing on future visits.

Next up were the gorditas. We often find the extra thick tortilla of a gordita pocket to be dry and distracting from the stuffing. However, Luis’s are open faced and the thick, warm, hand-made tortillas actually improve the flavors. We also tried an enchiladas de tinga, which was perfectly flavored with fresco cheese and an excellent fresh tomatillo sauce. Then there was an excellent chicken salad.

Back to the tacos

Back to the tacos, we also had the dorados chorizo y papa. I never pass up a chance to try a restaurant’s chorizo, and Tortilla Real’s has quickly become my new favorite. I tend to prefer Spanish chorizo, which is more flavor than heat when compared to the Latin American version. Luis’s achieves a good balance of flavor and spice and it went well with everything. I look forward to trying it in a taco and a burrito if Luis will let me go off the menu a bit. “Taco dorados” are crispy, usually deep-fried tacos, however, do not let the description fool you. Tortilla Real’s taco shells were not overly greasy or heavy. It was more like a light and flakey wanton shell.

Finally, there was the carne asada (steak) taco, which at first glance, looked too plain for me to get excited about. But one bite in, I was wondering what went in the seasoning because it had a meaty sweetness that caused me to slow down and savor every bite. When I finally got a chance to visit Luis’s kitchen, I was surprised to find out that all he does is grill it with a bit of salt and pepper. It also helps that he trims the meat, especially of silver skin, which can ruin the texture of even the tastiest meat. Had I not seen him prepare a steak taco with my own eyes, I still would not believe how simple the preparation.

Tortilla Real

address: 5 Petaluma Blvd. S.



phone: 658-1415

“I really enjoy seeing customers enjoy the great natural flavors,” Luis said.

I also have to make special mention of Tortilla Real’s chicharron and salsa appetizer, which was just about as prefect of chicharrons as I have ever tried.

Meet Luis Flores

Luis was 12 years old when his family moved to Oakland. Like so many immigrant families, his parents wanted a better life for their family, which consisted of four sons and five daughters. (Both of Luis’s parents come from large extended families too.) The family would later move to San Leandro, where Luis found his first job and where he would eventually graduate high school.

Like so many others, Luis’s first job was at a fast-food restaurant.

“I worked at Wendy’s and worked as much as I could,” he said of the 20 hours maximum he was allowed to work each week at that age. “I worked Friday afternoons and then all-day Saturday and Sunday.”

This, along with a love of playing soccer, helped him not only stay out of trouble but to help support his family financially.

His introduction to cooking, however, came at a much younger age. As with so many of today’s great chefs, Luis learned from his mother.

“She was always working very hard to take care of the family, so I took advantage of any moment I could catch her in the kitchen to learn how she created all those great flavors,” said Luis. “And my aunt was an inspiration too. On such a small budget, she could cook for everyone and it always tasted so great.”

His youthful experiences with food were as much about the family gathering and the celebration of culture, as it was about sustenance.

At 17, Luis landed a job in a Mexican-American restaurant. He would stay at for the next six years, working his way up from busser, to server, to bartender, to management. All his training was hands on, although he does take the opportunity to attend culinary conferences whenever possible to stay up to date with the industry.

“I learned from a lot of great chefs,” he said. “They are the ones who taught me to visualize a dish from the raw ingredients all the way through to the final plating.”

In 2000, Luis was hired by Adriano Paganini, current CEO and founder of Back of the House restaurant group. This gave Luis the opportunity to put his food and restaurant knowledge to use on a larger platform. At the time, Paganini was best known for launching Pasta Pomodoro, a West Coast restaurant chain. He was called “the anti-snob of the San Francisco food scene” by San Francisco Magazine.

“He was so positive and was super smart when it came to the restaurant business, and he treated his staff like a team, always treating everyone really well,” said Luis. At the time, Paganini had raised some venture capital and was looking to expand Pasta Pomodoro.

“I had gotten to learn the ‘old way,’ working in family restaurants and then to learn the ‘new way,’ dealing with investors looking to expand a restaurant’s brand,” Luis said.

He rose quickly in the organization and was eventually responsible for opening new Pasta Pomodoro restaurants up and down the West Coast. Paganini sold Pasta Pomodoro in 2010 and went on to start Back of the House, a restaurant consortium, with business partner Edmondo “Eddie” Sarti. Luis stayed on board and helped him launch the restaurant group’s long list of Bay Area favorites, which include names such as Beratta, delarosa, El Techo, Starbelly, Lolinda, Wild Seed, Super Duper Burgers, the Bird, a Mano, the Tailor’s Son, Uno Dos Tacos and Flores, which pays homage to Luis’s last name and family culture.

Luis notes that thanks to Paganini’s nurturing and supportive nature, 60% of just Burrata’s long-time employees have eventually gone on to open their own restaurants and bars. “He opens a lot of doors for a lot of great people,” said Luis. “I still work with him and am thankful for the experiences.”

Luis meet his wife, Jessica Spencer-Flores, while launching a new restaurant for Paganini in San Jose. A transplant from Bend, Oregon, she was attending college in the South Bay and looking for a job as a server. After graduation, Jessica continued with Back of the House and is currently the director of human resources, managing over a thousand employees.

“Sometimes, you just know things are right,” said Luis about meeting Jessica. “Plus, one of her first jobs as a kid was at a Mexican restaurant, so she understands my passion for the cuisines and the culture.”

Currently, the couple live in Novato with their 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, which is what got Luis thinking about opening a local restaurant.

When Tortilla Real got real

“We always come up to Petaluma for the great food,” said Luis. “I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant where I could share my mother’s recipes and love the vibe of downtown Petaluma. And I wanted to be closer to my family so I could spend more time with our two young kids. In fact, my 8-year-old daughter even helped me create our kids’ menu. When I saw the space come available, I knew I had to grab it. Ever since day one, the town has been so supportive, from the city offering free tents for COVID-19 to other restaurant owners to all our great guests.”

Annette and Peter White, owners of Sugo Trattoria, located next door to Tortilla Real, were some of the firsts to post rave reviews to social media about its opening.

“Real”, in this context is pronounced “rreh-ahl,” but carries the same meaning in Spanish as in English – “real” or “authentic,” which certainly describes the food.

Tortilla Real’s menu is inspired by the cuisine from the Mexican state of Jalisco, specifically from its capital of Guadalajara, where Luis was born and where his mother and aunt learned to cook. Along with its cuisine, Guadalajara is well-known for tequila and mariachi bands, both of which Luis plans to include at Tortilla Real. For anyone who ventured down on Cinco de Mayo, Luis had a mariachi band on site to entertain guests. And although he is a big fan of authentic tequila, without a full liquor license, which are often cost-prohibitive for a new restaurant, Luis has had to improvise. We tried one of his margaritas, which uses a tequila-infused sake, and were thoroughly impressed. We have it on good authority that Luis’s Michelada is also a hit, surely due to the fact that he does not rely on any store-bought mixers, everything is made fresh in house.

Jalisco is probably best known for its carnitas, which Luis learned to cook from a veteran chef who spent most of his life cooking in Jalisco. The flavor and texture of the carnitas tacos were excellent and, unlike many, the meat was tender without being mushy

“It’s best when cooking in big pots and traditionally is a long and slow process in order to keep the meat moist and flavorful,” Luis said.

Luis tries to visit Guadalajara at least once a year. “It is great to see family, but it is also nice to stay up to date on the cuisine and any new flavors,” said Luis. “I also enjoy visiting the tequila and mescal producers. Anyone can sell it, but my suppliers want me to know the process and also the families behind the products.”

The artwork around the restaurant, from colorful flowerpots to vases, also honors his native Jalisco, made by artists in Tonala, a suburb of Guadalajara. That includes the hand-carved wooden sign out front.

“When it arrived, it was exactly what I wanted and is a very special piece in the restaurant that connects directly back to our hometown,” said Luis.

Luis experimented with adding lights to some of the small salsa dishes that he also gets from Tonala artists. All these colors add a festive feel to the outdoor patio.

For the vegans

Tortilla Real is a full-blown Mexican restaurant, with plenty of great meat options, but that did not stop Luis from considering offering veggie and vegan options. As soon as he opened, Don Forman, an avid local diner and vegan, reached out in order to learn more about the menu.

“When we see a new or new to us Mexican restaurant open, we shoot them an email asking about the beans and rice,” Forman said. “A lot of places have chicken broth in the rice and have lard in the beans. I received four to five emails from Luis, so he is listening to what his customers want.”

Luis responded with a detailed breakdown of the exact ingredients he uses in his recipes, which right there says a lot about his dedication to his craft. As luck would have it for Don, most of Tortilla Real’s dishes do not include meat (or meat-based broths).

“We make everything fresh and don’t add things like meat to the dish until the moment the customer orders it,” Luis said. “We keep things simple and fresh, so it was really easy to work with Don’s suggestions. We were easily able to modify the dishes ever so slightly in order to make them veggie and even vegan friendly.”

It did the trick.

“After this email we headed to Tortilla Real for lunch, met Luis and had a nice chat,” Don said. “He really seems to want to make his customers happy. I asked if they could sauté the veggies in broth and not use olive oil. Some plant-based/vegans try to avoid oil, salt and sugar for various health reasons. It’s not like we are perfect at avoiding those all the time, but we try.”

Luis tried a few experiments to make sure his authentic flavors still carried through and sure enough, he is able to offer quite a wide variety of veggie and vegan dishes that pack just as much flavor as his originals.

“When you know what your ingredients are, you can make just about anything vegan,” Luis said.

Kid-friendly food

Luis is open to all suggestions when it comes to his menu. As mentioned, his daughter helped him create the kids’ menu based on her likes.

“She doesn’t like fried foods, which is what is on most kids’ menus,” said Luis. “So, with her help, we came up with healthier options, which both kids and parents have been very happy with.”

Terrific tortillas

Our first Tortilla Real meal was take-out, and although excellent, we knew it would only get better when eaten in-house, fresh off the grill. Sure enough, our second visit, on their front patio, the food was turned “up to eleven.”

Having run into far too many dry corn tortillas throughout my years of eating Mexican food, I honestly tend to prefer thinner flour tortillas. However, Tortilla Real’s handmade corn tortilla are truly out of this world. Instead of two thin, easily torn soft taco rounds, Luis goes with a thicker, heartier single tortilla. They are moist, flavorful and, although thicker than what we are used to, are not heavy. We found them to be supple and absolutely delicious, even all on their own. Unlike many tortillas, which are simply a vessel to contain the other ingredients, Luis’s add flavor and texture to everything dish they are part of.

Luis sources the masa, the maize dough used for tortillas, from a small family-run business in Oakland that he has worked with for many years.

“What I really like about them is that they will let me buy in small batches,” he said. “We want our food to be fresh, but you can’t do that when you buy in bulk.”

Luis and his crew make their tortillas fresh to order, which I quickly learned makes a huge difference.

“The tortillas and the salsas – those need to be as fresh as possible because they have the biggest impact on the rest of the food,” he said.

Luis then handed me a fresh tortilla which was wrapped around just a touch of salt and pepper. “This is what you get back home while you are waiting for your meal,” he explains.

Other than the first bite of a fresh piece of sun-ripened fruit, I cannot recall something so simple tasting so good. For as incredible as the rest of his dishes are, and we honestly loved them all, I keep thinking back to the perfectly prepared flavors of that single salt-and-peppered tortilla. If this were an appetizer, we would order it every time.

Luis also puts plenty of thought into his sauces and salsas, including a family heirloom of a recipe in his mom’s mole. It is subtle and not what I was expecting, as I am used to versions that are far too heavy-handed with chocolate. This one has just the right spiciness and the addition of charred tortillas adds smokiness while the charred plantains add sweetness, as well as some starch. And because Luis uses gluten-free chocolate bars instead of the normally gluten-laden chocolate powders, his mole appears to be gluten-free.

“For our salsa, I do utilize some Yucatan flavors,” he said of his main salsa. “It’s pretty simple – just tomato, onion, salt, pepper and lime.”

Normally, I avoid raw onions like the plague, but the lime in Luis’s salsa tempers the normal raw onion burn, which had me filling each dipping chip to the brim. This salsa can also be ordered alongside an excellent guacamole. They each stand up on their own, but we could not resist mixing them together, which made for a whole different flavor and texture experience. We are also huge fans of tomatillo salsas and Luis’s is excellent all around.

During our second visit we explore more of the menu, trying the Quesabirria and the Queso Fundido, both of which we had heard good things about. Quesabirria are kind of a Mexican version of the French dip, but with tacos; and Queso Fundido is tortillas dipped in warmed cheese mixed with chorizo.

One of Luis’s secrets is that he uses a higher quality cheese than normal. “Oaxaca cheese is creamier,” he said. “It’s a little more expensive but it makes a difference. It doesn’t overpower things but still stands up on its own, even with spicier flavors like our chorizo. It wouldn’t taste like my mom’s cooking without the Oaxacan cheese.”

We also tried the carnitas taco in both a steak and chicken burrito during this visit and were again impressed with the clean flavors. We particularly liked the whole black beans instead of the normal refried beans, although I assume guests could request either.

We finished out our meal by sampling both desserts – the jericalla and the tres leches cake. Jericalla is a Guadalajara traditional custard with vanilla and cinnamon sugar and is a “delicious cross between flan and crème brulee.” The Tres Leches is put together on the spot, which gives it a natural freshness. The cakes are infused with whole milk, condensed milk and evaporated milk (the name tres leches means “three milks”), and comes from Luis’s brother’s bakery. These are then topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream and dulce de leche just before they hit the table. Both were so good, we will have a hard time choosing between these sweet endings on our next visit.

Two items we were told we must try were the tortilla chicken soup and torta de ahogada, which is a Guadalajara specialty rumored to be a hangover cure. It includes carnitas, bean, pickled oregano and onion sandwich drowned in spicy chile sauce, and it’s usually served alongside a Michelada beer.

Along with all the great food, Luis also set out to try to be as sustainable as possible from day one. Even though the city is accommodating to restaurants when it comes to food scraps and take-out containers, Luis made sure all of his to-go containers are fully compostable, and he is constantly looking for ways to improve in this area, as well as cut down on waste. “When you pay such close attention to the ingredients, you can sometimes forget about the other pieces,” he said. “I want to offer a great experience both at the table but also pay attention to the environment.”

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