Tortilla Queen

By Robb Walsh

Published on May 27, 2009

The Thin and Crispy Homestyle Tortilla Chips made by Leal's Tortilla Factory, in Muleshoe, near the Texas-New Mexico border, are off-the-charts good. When you eat them, you can feel the texture of the stone-ground corn between your teeth, and you suddenly remember (if you ever knew in the first place) what a corn tortilla chip¬—that most ubiquitous and bastardized of Tex-Mex foods—is supposed to taste like. Irma Leal, who set up Leal's Tortilla Factory along with her husband, Jesse, in 1967 after learning the trade from her father, achieves these glorious snacks simply by making tortillas the way they used to be made. Like the Mesoamericans who invented the food, she uses fresh masa, or corn dough, that's been ground between huge lava-stone wheels—as opposed to the reconstituted powdered masa that has become the industry standard—to make her tortillas, which are baked, cut into pieces, seasoned, and fried until delicately crisp. The difference between the tortillas from Leal's and those made with masa harina, as the powdered stuff is called, is like the difference between fresh-brewed coffee and instant. But although I'll grab a cup of instant coffee in a pinch, I can no longer settle for another chip now that I've tasted the ones from Leal's.

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