Real Mexican flavors, tacos at Tortilla Real in Petaluma
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.