Jerry Aguilar wanted fresh tortillas on Tucson’s east side, where he and his family live.
And that’s what he and his wife Geri got when they opened La Mesa Tortillas in 1996.
“There were no places on the east side of town to get fresh tortillas,” Geri says. “Owning his own restaurant was always a dream of Jerry’s, and he thought that the east side needed something like this.”
Geri was hesitant at first — was there a demand for tortillas on that side of town? She figured she wanted them; others must want them, too.
Jerry eventually came across an empty space in a strip mall on East Broadway and East Pantano Road.
When Geri visited the space for the first time, she knew it was the right place. She had already created La Mesa’s logo — a Saguaro cactus and a bird with a mesa in the background. There was a mural on the wall with the same design.
“It was fate at that point,” she says.
The east side wasn’t known for fresh tortillas, the Aguilars said. Many customers came in surprised to find the tortillas are handmade at the store.
“We use flour, salt, shortening, and water,” Jerry says. “No additives, no preservatives. Everything is mixed and cut down to the size of tortillas we need. They run through a sheeter and are stretched and cooked by hand. They’re made fresh daily.”
The Aguilars once looked into something less labor-intensive. When attending a food show, they were greeted with an automatic tortilla machine. It was so high-tech that you could choose the amount of brown spots you wanted on each tortilla. They decided against it.
“Our way of making the tortilla isn’t what the industry sees anymore,” Geri says. “It takes more manpower to make our tortillas, but the quality is wonderful.”
The business boomed so much that the couple opened a second location on East Pima Street and North Alvernon Way. Shortly after that, they opened a third location on West Orange Grove Road and West River Road. Their sons manage those locations.
Customers can pick up flour, corn, whole wheat, and jalapeño tortillas in varying sizes, all by the dozen and topping out at $4.50 for large flour. Besides making tortillas, the Aguilars also offer such items as tamales ($10.50 one-half dozen) and masa ($5 for a 5-pound bag).
They also serve a full lunch menu that includes burros, quesadillas, tamales and nachos.
“When I want a chili dog, I go to Pat’s Chili Dogs,” Jerry says. “I want people to want red chili beef and come here for it.”
Since they launched the lunch menu many years ago, the couple hasn’t changed any of the recipes.
“I hate when I go somewhere and get used to something, and then the restaurant changes the recipe or one chef makes it differently,” Geri says. “If you come into our store, whatever you order will be of the same quality.”
They have, however, tried to add new items to the menu. They once added a barbecue beef sandwich — until a customer said, “I don’t come in here to buy something on a bun. I come in here to buy something on a tortilla.”
The couple says it’s been a rewarding experience to watch their customers’ families grow.
“We have a customer who would come in with her son,” Jerry says. “She would always say that her son lived on our tortillas.”
Now her son is in college and stops by La Mesa weekly.
“One of the best compliments to receive is when people say that our tortillas taste like their mom’s, or that it smells like their nana’s house when they walk in,” Jerry says.
La Mesa is currently gearing up for the holiday season, their busiest time of the year. They begin taking orders for tamales on October 1, despite getting calls as early as August.
The tortilleria also ships their tortillas nationwide. Geri says they have regular customers from states all over the East Coast, Hawaii and Alaska.
There are no plans for a fourth location in town, but, says Jerry, “With our kids working in the industry now, it’s really up to them. Never say never.”