music in the park san jose

.Flour Tortillas Star at Xulo Mexiterranean Popup

Chef Michael de la Torre's cuisine bucks norms

music in the park san jose

When I went to the Gilman Wine Block First Friday, the Xulo tortilla and taco stand flanked one of the festival’s outer edges. Even though the retro logo was emblazoned on an eye-catching overhead sign, Michael de la Torre’s pop-up was placed where a wallflower might stand at a party. The monthly event on Gilman Street is packed with some of the most inventive chefs currently producing food at Bay Area pop-ups. Despite its unassuming location, Xulo was a standout in a crowded field. 

De la Torre’s flour tortillas taste as delectable as the homemade corn ones now taken for granted at many taquerias. “I grew up on very good flour tortillas made by my paternal grandma,” de la Torre said. “I knew early on what they were supposed to taste like, and I got spoiled by having her hand-rolled tortillas any time I was there.”

When the chef started to educate himself about food, he began to make them himself. “You should only be tasting four ingredients so make those four ingredients the best that you possibly can,” he said. “Good flour, good salt, good fat and then water. Don’t put anything else that doesn’t belong.”

The chef sources his flour from Central Milling. “I wanted there to be specks of grain inside of the tortilla so that you can see what it is you’re eating,” de la Torre said. “So I use a flour that’s got a bit more flavor and texture than, say, a really bleached all-purpose one.”

Xulo customers, like myself, praise his tortillas online and in person because they’re so much better than the flavorless, mass-produced ones. “It feels good to hear people’s responses,” he said. “One of my main goals here is not to compromise on the quality and flavor.” This means the tortilla is more expensive but, de la Torre said, “The proof is in the pudding.”

The chef’s culinary point of view, which he describes as “Mexiterranean,” reflects his dual heritage. His dad’s side of the family is from Mexico, his mother’s from Italy. “I grew up with a lot of those familiar flavors,” de la Torre said. “I’m trying to tell a story with my food, where it comes from, how it’s borrowed and how we reimagine dishes when we have access to new ingredients.” Combining Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines, but honoring both at the same time, feels natural to him.

The dishes are both familiar and unfamiliar. “We make a chopped cilantro salsa verde, the Yemeni version, which is called zhoug,” he said. The sauce contains fermented cilantro, but de la Torre wanted to amp up the Mediterranean flavors by adding pomegranates to it.

He makes a fugazzeta quesadilla, an Argentinian play on pizza with oregano and caramelized onions. “It’s kind of Italian, South American and Mexican, too,” he said.

Every dish at Xulo doesn’t qualify as Mexiterranean, but it’s a recurring theme on the menu. What makes the bi-monthly pop-up unique is the flour tortilla. “Our staple tortilla is made with extra-virgin olive oil from Séka Hills,” de la Torre said. “That’s an immediate bond between the Mediterranean and the Mexican tortilla.”

Tahona Mercado, on Nob Hill in San Francisco, carries Xulo’s tortillas, as does Oakland’s Tacos Oscar. They feature the tortillas during their weekend brunch, when they serve egg-forward breakfast tacos. And Chef Manuel Bonilla of Chisme, who has recently taken over the Low Bar kitchen, makes quesadillas with them.

“Manny is also making a fried buñuelo [nachos dulces]. Basically, they cut the tortillas up and fry them,” de la Torre said. “They get super airy and crispy and delicious, and then they have a chocolate dipping sauce—they’re ridiculous!” He hopes the nachos dulces will become a fixture on Chisme’s menu.

“I really like using authentic next to traditional next to original, rotating those words out to a point where you don’t even really know what they mean anymore,” de la Torre said. “I’m never going to be Mexican or Italian enough, so I’m not going to make strictly Mexican or Italian food.”

The chef has existed in that cross-cultural shadowland his entire life, which has freed him up to dabble in any number of cuisines. “As long as the food tastes good, I’m having fun making it and bucking some norms,” he said.

Xulo: For pop-up events check online at xulo.net or instagram.com/okayxulo. Good Eggs, Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Fish Market also carry Xulo tortillas.

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