That mouthwatering aroma of freshly made Mexican food coming from the back kitchen of Anita Street Market is just a happy omen of delicious things to come.
Step inside and make an order, but what?
Maybe the Big Breakfast Burrito, made on a handmade 16-inch flour tortilla. It’s a burrito fat enough and long enough for two, maybe three meals, and comes with hotter-than-blazes red sauce. Or could a caramelo, a sort of quesadilla stuffed with carne asada and plenty of melted cheese, be more your style?
There are so many good choices, but do not leave without the market’s true specialty: a dozen handmade, five-inch flour gorditas, which are little, fat tortillas at Anita Street Market. What’s special about these is that they are made almost entirely by hand. There is a mixer to mix la masa and a machine that begins the flattening process, but then human hands take over.
That is what makes all the flour tortillas at Anita Street Market so special. They are stretched out and cooked by hand, something that can barely be found anywhere anymore, except maybe in your abuelita’s kitchen.
Gracie Soto oversees the entire operation because it is her “tiendita,” or little neighborhood market, passed on to her by her late grandmother.
“I feel very honored, I feel very blessed,” she said. “It is a lot of work but it’s not something that I’m not used to.”
Take a bite of this special tortilla, and you will taste love, passion, history and — more than anything else — the abiding love and respect of a granddaughter for the people who raised her, her nana and tata.
“My grandparents, their hard work and sacrifice, that’s right there,” Soto said, pointing to a package of a dozen gorditas. “But not only that, it’s two young people who came from Mexico who just wanted a better life and wanted what they call the American dream, to own your own business and be your own boss. I think that was their real goal in life, to give us — and me — a better life, and along that way they found themselves. It’s a perfect example that anything is possible.”
Anita Street Market is a hallowed Tucson institution — it’s been there since the 1930s. Originally opened by a Chinese family who lived in a back room of the store, Soto’s grandparents took over 40 years ago. It became a second home to her.
“My mom was pregnant with me when they first started, so I literally grew up in this store,” she said. “It’s like my home. I was adopted by my nana and tata so I learned to walk and crawl (here), I had my first birthday here, so for me it’s my home.”
It’s also where she learned her love of cooking.
“My grandmother taught me at a very young age how to make the tortillas, how to do the red chile,” Soto said. “I loved being with her in the kitchen as a little girl. She was always making homemade food, whether here at the store or at home.”
Soto speaks with passion when she talks about the tortillas.
“(Making tortillas) is a huge Mexican tradition,” she said. “And as our grandparents and parents are no longer here with us, we’re losing those traditions. Tortillas are part of the United States all over now, but Anita’s is the heart of where the real tortillas are made.”
Even her employees can feel the history and love here.
“I love the people that come in here, and they share their stories about (Gracie’s grandparents),” cashier Sandra “La Chapalita” Munoz-Moreno said. “Just being here, I felt the love around it. I feel like I walked in here with my grandma before (even though she hadn’t); I had never been on this side of town until I met Gracie.”
There are two unexpected ingredients that make these gorditas as tasty as they are: cottage cheese and milk.
“That’s why ours are special,” Soto said.
Those two ingredients make them moist and flavorful, not dry sheets of paper. The recipe is an old family tradition, handed down to Soto’s grandfather from his own grandmother. Soto is the fifth generation to make them the old way.
She doesn’t just sell gorditas. There are flour tortillas of various sizes, both 14- and nine-inch, and they are also handmade, but in the thin Sonoran-style. There are also corn tortillas.
It’s those five-inch gorditas, however, that fly off the shelves, a fact not lost on Soto.
“When customers come to buy tortillas, I take it very personally,” she said. “Now I think I kind of understand where my grandparents were coming from when they would tell me, ‘You treat the customers with ultimate respect.’”
The customers return that respect. Soto said she has customers from all over the United States who want her gorditas. They come from Alaska, Florida and across town.
“It brings me so much joy to know that this little store is not just loved here in Tucson, but all around,” she said.