Comfort Foods

After the death of her husband, Grace Soto finds solace in her Anita Street Market

Sandwiched between a railroad track and Interstate 10, Barrio Anita is not the first place one would think to look when suffering from an empty stomach.

The neighborhood is dotted with vacant lots and ramshackle houses. Dogs yowl relentlessly, and trains roar by on an all-too-frequent basis.

However, happiness can often be found off the beaten path—and happiness is what you may find, or at least what your stomach may feel, if you stumble across Anita Street Market.

For 25 years, owner Grace Soto has been preparing homemade tortillas, burros, chorizo and gorditas for lovers of authentic Mexican food. Grace remembers waking up early in the morning and making tortillas by hand with her mother; that's a Mexican tradition Grace and the employees of Anita Street Market take part in almost every day.

The tortillas are hand-stretched and served warm. These are the best flour tortillas I have ever had the good fortune to eat.

Every morning, long before sunrise, a staff of experienced cooks busily prepares for the morning rush. Hands mix large balls of flour with vegetable oil and water. The dough is cut, flattened and then cooked to perfection on a large black iron grill. By 8 a.m., the cooking racks are full of fresh dough. Bags of corn, flour and wheat tortillas line the countertop.

The breakfast and lunch lines will often stretch out the door as patrons eagerly wait to tear open a bag of cottage cheese and milk gorditas, or savor a red chili burro. By the end of the day, 400 dozen flour tortillas alone will be served.

I arrived at the market to find Grace sitting behind the counter, contentedly watching an old TV while her young nephew waited on a line of customers. Old-fashioned coolers hummed quietly. Devotional candles, biblical depictions and crosses line the shelves and walls. The market looks and feels like a relic of a bygone era.

Grace is happy to agree with that observation. Ever since the death of her husband, Mario, a year ago, Grace has taken comfort in the fact that the store she and her husband opened in 1984 looks and feels the same.

"This is why I change nothing," she said. "It is like my husband is still here."

Slight in stature with a friendly face, Grace smiled and explained to me that her English is rather spotty, and called her son and granddaughter to help facilitate an interview. Grace's son, Alfonso, and granddaughter, Gracie Soto, help Grace manage and run the busy market. Alfonso dove into the story of how his family came to own and operate Anita Street Market.

The Sotos moved from Nogales to Tucson in the early 1980s with barely any money and no definite plans, he said. While working for a paving company in the barrio, Alfonso was asked by his boss if he knew anyone who would be interested in purchasing an old market on Anita Avenue.

"A long time ago, it used to be a Chinese market," said Alfonso. "There is a basement where they used to gamble down there. And they used to sell liquor. It was actually like a little bar in the back."

Alfonso passed the information on to his parents, who decided to rent the building from Alfonso's boss. "It wasn't really a tortilla factory when they started," said Gracie Soto. "They mostly sold beer and cigarettes, because that was what was selling."

However, the newly opened Anita Street Market soon ran into trouble.

"Someone broke in through the air vent, and stole all the cigarettes and the beer, and so we did away with our liquor license," said Alfonso.

Soon after the break-in, Grace Soto started to make red chili burros by hand in the back room using a recipe she came up with herself. Made with seasoned machaca, the burros sold well and helped keep the market in business.

The Sotos purchased their tortillas from Mi Casita Tortillas during the early days. "After a while, Mi Casita didn't want to deliver my grandparents' tortillas unless they bought more than 10 dozen," said Gracie Soto. "That's when my grandparents started to make tortillas by hand."

Mario Soto would take the family's tortillas to local businesses in the hope that they would sell.

"There was an old meat market on Grande Avenue where my grandfather asked the owner if he could drop off some tortillas," said Gracie Soto. "The owner was like, 'Oh, whatever. Leave them there; they probably won't sell.'

"Well, he ended up calling back the same day and telling them he sold out," she said. Ten dozen tortillas a day soon turned into 20 dozen, and on and on it went.

Said Alfonso, "People started buying them, more and more people, so my dad got all the machinery, and we ended up buying the place.

"We went from selling 10 or 20 stacks a day to selling hundreds," he said. "At noon, there will be a line of people who have already called in their orders for burros."

Even more surprising are the out-of-state deliveries.

"Some mothers had their kids in Iraq, and they mailed them our tortillas," said Alfonso. "We have shipped them to Minnesota, and a lot of people come from Phoenix."

After years of running the small market, one would think Grace would be itching for retirement or a change. Her granddaughter suggested converting the market into a restaurant. "Lots of people come every day and buy the same burro over and over again," said Gracie. "I can only imagine if we opened a restaurant."

Yet as long as Grace can make it into the store, lovers of the quaint mom-and-pop style market can rest assured that it will remain untouched. "This place is my life," said Grace. "I can't see it any other way."

One last question popped into my mind for Grace: What should I do with my tortillas once I get home? Grace smiled at me and replied, "Beans, potatoes, meat, butter, cheese—everything goes good in the tortilla."

Point taken.