When I was 11 years old I'm pretty sure my biggest accomplishment was steering my elf thief to 9th level in Dungeons and Dragons.
But local wunderkind Abel Ramos has been making some of the best tortillas in the highly competitive Southern Arizona market since he turned 6. He is now 11 going on 12.
Certainly, most kids his age are not tortilla moguls. But after I spent an afternoon with him, I can say with confidence that he's not your average young man. And that's good, because you have to be above average to make a name for yourself, especially in the realm of locally sourced and produced tortillas here in Tucson.
Ramos' late grandfather had a Tucson-style Mexican food restaurant called the Zona Barrio Grill in Utah.
"My brothers and sisters and I would go out there every summer and the only way to wake me up was the smell of my nana's and tata's tortillas cooking," Ramos says. "I remember when I was like 3 or 4 years old, I would just walk around holding a bag of those tortillas, eating them like potato chips. So, I've always been fascinated by how tortillas are made."
Getting a small business up and running isn't child's play, especially in the food arena. Ramos' family helps and supports him all the way, but full-time partnership and guidance comes courtesy of his nana. Her background in helping run the restaurant back in Utah paved the way to get her grandson grounded enough to handle a precarious venture such as making and selling hand-crafted—and quite exceptional—tortillas.
"When we started to make the tortillas, I began to see dollar signs," Ramos says. "But my nana said it doesn't work like that. I had to learn about margins and ordering and packaging and all that. It's hard, and I'm still learning, but all I know is that we make the best tortillas anywhere."
All novelty of an 11-year-old kid being part of the Tucson tortilla hustle aside, Ramos and his nana have a seriously delicious product on their flour-dusted hands. This is due in part to several important factors—most notably, the recipes handed down from Ramos' great-great grandmother, a Tubac native that began making her own tortillas in the late 1800s. Another factor: the minimal ingredients that go into each batch of tortillas; quality salt from the sea of Cortez, locally produced avocado oil and Sonoran White wheat, stemming from a heritage grain planted and harvested by Jesuit priest Father Kino.
Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, who is quite familiar with ancient grains, helped get Chef Abel's Tortillas started down the right direction. Ramos says Guerro taught him all about the grains he uses.
"He also took me to the flour mill where it is produced and even started letting me sell my tortillas in his shop," says Ramos. "From there we started selling them at farmer's markets. Now Tucson Tamale Company, 5 Points Market and Food Conspiracy carries my tortillas. Plus, we've been getting calls from people and restaurants all across the U.S. but the only way to ship them is to freeze them. And I don't want to do that. It'll make them taste different, so we're trying to figure out a way to go bigger while still having them taste perfect."
Ramos and his nana now cook all of the tortillas in their humble home kitchen, in either 6-inch or 4-inch size, both going for $5.25 a dozen. But they might someday expand into their garage, as Guerra did when he started Barrio Bread. Being busy with school, playing football and just wanting to be a fairly normal kid, Ramos isn't really ready to start dealing with zoning laws and various boring adult-sounding permits.
Ramos recently lost his grandfather to prostate cancer, so a percentage of profits goes to local cancer charities while a bigger chunk is being invested in his college fund. Still, Ramos has a child's dream of culinary grandeur.
"I want to move to New York and build this huge building that says, 'Chef Abel's Tortillas' at the top," Ramos says. "And I want to start a tortilla truck that is painted to look like a tortilla. We'll sell the best tortillas while playing loud tortilla music. I don't know what tortilla music is, but I really want it." ■