April 20, 2001

Barrio Logan Family Keeps Their Tortilleria Cooking

By Yvette tenBerge

Barrio Logan residents who are hungry for the taste of homemade flour tortillas, burritos de carnitas, chile rellenos and tamales are extremely familiar with the one-room building located on the corner of Beardsley Street and National Avenue. El Porvenir Tortilleria, an electric blue and bright white stone structure, has been a magnet for customers who crave the taste of authentic Mexican food since it first opened its doors in 1918.

Luz Castañeda whips up her famous Chiles Rellenos.

"My grandmother, Rafaela Aguilera, came here straight from Jalisco, Mexico with her fifth husband, my mother and my uncle. She chose the name of this business because she thought it would be something that would stay in the family long into the future, generation after generation," says Luz Castañeda, the energetic, 27 year-old mother of two who runs El Porvenir. Always behind the counter, she can be found doing anything from working the cash register and chatting with customers to chopping pork and beef with a huge meat cleaver that more closely resembles a machete. Rows of thin, gold bracelets stacked along her arms clink together as she reaches down to hand her four year-old son, Jerry, a ball of masa. "It makes me proud to say that, so far, we have been able to keep my grandmother's dream going."

Stroll into El Porvenir between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on any weekday or between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and it is easy to see that Rafaela Aguilera's vision has indeed come to fruition. The years have taken their toll on the family, with Ms. Aguilera's death in 1989 and with Ms. Castañeda's mother's continued difficulties with her heart and with her eyesight. Despite these setbacks, though, every recipe remains unchanged, and the kitchen still bustles with life. Indeed, each and every family member and employee has mastered their chosen tasks.

Francisco Munguia, a close friend of the family, comes in before dawn to make fresh corn tortillas before heading off to his regular day job. Ana Solano stands before the six by three foot, black comal making flour tortillas as she has for the past 10 years. Ms. Castañeda and her sister Isabel take turns beating the egg whites for the chile rellenos, chopping meat, steaming tamales and preparing masa. Even little Jerry has his duty, using a chair to hike himself up high enough to roll the tortilla dough into bolitas and then flatten them before turning them over to Mrs. Solano. Jerry is not the youngest worker, though, as Ms. Castañeda's two year-old daughter, Rosalie, is learning the business the same way that her mother, aunts and uncles before her did.

Ana Solano makes flour tortillas.

"Rosalie has learned the way we all did, by watching. I grew up with my grandmother, so by the time I was five years-old, I was up on a chair making food. Now Rosalie grabs a chair and helps out, as well. She can already make almost anything in here," says Ms. Castañeda, proudly observing her curly-haired daughter as she struts confidently around the kitchen. She laughs as she recounts a familiar request that she continually denies her daughter. "The one thing I have not let her do, no matter how much she asks, is use the machete."

Ms. Castañeda describes the use of each of the various kitchen items, such as an antique bakery machine that has been adapted to flatten dough so that each tortilla no longer needs to be rolled out by hand, a silver dough cutter that separates a large piece of masa into 36 pieces and a large dough mixer that is used each morning to make the tortilla dough. She goes on to explain that each of these machines, including a giant, industrial size fan designed to expel some of the intense kitchen heat outside, have been with the restaurant since her grandmother began the business over 80 years ago.

By observing the steady stream of customers that flow in and out of the tiny tortilleria throughout the day, it becomes obvious that the machinery and the people that keep El Porvenir running smoothly are not the only things that have been around for years. The majority of its patrons, like Tom Castillo, now a 53 year-old resident of Bay Park, grew up in the neighborhood eating their homemade flour tortillas. Mr. Castillo makes the 20 minute trip at least once a week to purchase four or five dozen of these fresh tortillas for his own family.

"I have been coming here since I was at least 15 years-old. Actually, I am sure that I was coming here even before that with my mother when I was a kid. It is always nice to see the same, familiar faces," says Mr. Castillo, who waits patiently for Ms. Castañeda to wrap his tortillas in plastic bags. "You cannot really compare this place with any other [tortilleria]; they are just the best."

Rosalie Castañeda helps prepare the masa for Ms. Solano.

Leticia Lopez, a 32 year-old, stay-at-home mother, travels from San Ysidro to get a taste of El Porvenir's burritos and tamales. She discovered the restaurant seven years ago while looking for a place to eat after attending a nearby church service. "I keep coming because the food here is very good, and my daughter eats anything that they cook," says Ms. Lopez, pointing to her four year-old daughter who is digging into her burritos con chile. "It is hot, but she still eats it. All I can say is that if you like Mexican food, you had better come here."

As the line of lunchtime customers thins, Ms. Castañeda takes a break long enough to make sure that her mother Juanita, who is sitting in a chair toward the back of the kitchen, is fine and that her children are eating lunch. "After my mom got sick, I realized that I didn't want her to rent out the business. I wanted our food to be of the same quality and to have the same taste. I am a single mother, so yes, there are times when I want to jump off a bridge, but thank God I am strong enough to handle it all," says Ms. Castañeda as she laughs before recalling her own mother's struggle to raise her own children as a single parent. "I love cooking, and I love working with people. It's in my blood to cook. As you can see, my kids love working here, and I am happy and proud to pass that on to them."

El Porvenir can be reached at 619-233-8047.

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