Adelita Tamales and Tortilla Factory first opened its doors for business in San Antonio’s Westside in 1938. Since its founding by Roberto and Beatrice Borrego, the food business has been passed on to second and third generations of Borregos. Adelita, which survived a U.S. economic depression, recessions, Westside urbanization, and changes in food tastes, is a symbol of our Mexican culinary culture in San Antonio and an institution on the Westside.
I. The Origin of Corn and Flour Tortillas
Research by historians and anthropologists reveal much about the origins of some of our most common dishes in the Southwest. According to the earliest reports, tortillas were prepared in Mexico long before Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and subsequently established Mexico as a colony of Spain.
When Cortes landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he burned his ships and marched toward the Azteca capital without any provisions. On their march, Spaniards quickly adapted to indigenous foods, such as fruits, vegetables, tortillas, avocados, chilies, nopalitos, and beans. When
Cortes’ soldiers entered the Aztec capital they discovered a nobility that ate exotic foods, including turkey, fish, ants, grasshoppers, and deer meat.
The commoners ate two times a day and seldom ate meat. But nobility and commoners shared one food, maize or corn. Historian Scott M. Rank writes that most often the commoners’ breakfast included maize porridge, chilies, tortillas, beans and hot sauce. In the middle of the afternoon they consumed more tortillas, but added tamales and a casserole of squash and tomatoes.
Spaniards introduced wheat bread, cattle, hogs, grapes, and many other fruits and vegetables to the Americas. The Spaniards encouraged the indigenous people to utilize wheat flour to make flour tortillas, which the Europeans seemed to prefer over corn. Mexican food that we know today is a hybrid of European and New World cultures. Tamales which may have included turkey or deer meat in ancient Mexico evolved into tamales made from pork or chicken in modern times.
Adan Medrano writes in Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes that “Over thousands of years, Native Americans in what is now Texas passed down their ways of roasting, boiling, steaming, salting,
drying, grinding, and blending.” At Olmos Dam in San Antonio, only a few miles from the masa (corn) grinders of Adelita, Medrano notes that archaeologists found evidence of earth ovens from more than 4,000 years ago.
II. Tortillas in Modern San Antonio
There has never been a time when tortillas were not a part of Robert Borrego Jr.’s life. When he was born in 1931, his father, Roberto Borrego, Sr., worked for La Vencedora Tortilla, a San Antonio company owned by Rafael Velasco.
Borrego, Sr. learned the tamale and tortilla food business from Rafael Velasco. Velasco is credited with introducing automation to tortilla making in Texas in 1925, thus making it possible to prepare tortillas by the thousands daily. Mr. Borrego noted that the machinery had been bought in from Mexico.
Roberto Borrego, Sr. founded El Popo Tortillas in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression. In San Antonio, hundreds of businesses were closing and many of the unemployed would have never considered starting a new business. Roberto Borrego and his wife Beatrice started El Popo Tortillas together and recently their son and grandson proudly showed me the ledger from the first week of sales in 1938, a total of $8.00. Their store was on Leon and Houston, directly across from the Missouri Pacific train station.
At age 88, Robert Borrego still drives to work at the Adelita store on Fresno Street six days of the week, alongside his grandson R. Anthony Borrego, IV who is the General Manager of the food company.
I grew up in my parent’s grocery store on Guadalupe Street, which my parents ran from 1945 to 1970, and I remember Robert Borrego delivering El Popo tortillas to our store in the 1950s. Borrego, a 1950 Tech High School graduate, started with the original company and helped his parents run the business until 1980.
In the early years, El Popo had a fleet of delivery trucks and their customers were scattered all over the city. They were especially active in the Westside, where before the advent of supermarkets, small grocery stores dotted the major streets. Robert Borrego branched off in 1980 to start Adelita Tamales and Tortilla Factory. El Popo, which was sold in the 1980s, did not survive. But Adelita, under Robert Borrego and his grandson R. Anthony Borrego, IV, continued the family tradition. Anthony Borrego, a graduate of the University of Houston Hotel and Restaurant Management program chose to come home to work in the family food business.
The business of making tortillas in a city that consumes more than several million a year is complex and challenging. R. Anthony Borrego, IV confirmed that they manufacture more than 150,000 corn and flour tortillas a week. But Adelita foods are more than a tortilla factory. The business produces a significant number of tamales and corn chips daily.
Small businesses do not advertise much and depend greatly on word of mouth and customer loyalty for sustainability. Few small businesses in San Antonio can count on customer loyalty for 70 years, as in the case of Rosemary Kowalski and the RK Group. Borrego remembers that Kowalski first started buying tortillas from the Borrego family when she opened a small diner on Zarzamora Street in the late 1940s. Today, her company, the RK Group, continues to buy food from Adelita.
If you have ever been to a Spurs game, a concert at the ATT, or an S.A. Rodeo event, you have seen or eaten food prepared by the Adelita company. For the Spurs, the Adelita company prepares special black and silver tortilla chips. At Fiesta San Antonio in 2019, Adelita offered chips with confetti colors.
On any given day, Adelita cooks 24,000 flour and corn tortillas. Their production over a month exceeds 600,000 tortillas, not counting tamales and other food products. During the Christmas holidays, they sell as many as 2,500 tamales in a day.
Adelita is famous in San Antonio not just for its tortillas, chips, and tamales, but also for its barbacoa. Barbacoa, as an article in Palate: Food and Culture of the South explain, is not at all like barbeque brisket. Local writer Edmund Tijerina expanded on the way Mexican barbacoa is prepared and its popularity. Adelita uses only cow cheeks which are steamed for six hours in the early mornings and sold principally on Saturdays and Sundays as their signature barbacoa.
On any given weekend customers line up early in front of the Adelita store for the freshly cooked barbacoa. More than 1,500 pounds of this specialty meat is sold on most weekends. Once inside the store, customers often take a moment to look over the many awards that Adelita Tamales and Tortilla Factory has won.
There are more than 44,000 Hispanic small businesses in San Antonio, and only a handful have been in business since the Great Depression. Over many Christmas holidays, my family has eaten tamales prepared by the Borregos. We remain great admirers of their hard work, persistence, and excellent traditional Mexican dishes. In addition, they serve as mindful keepers of our Mexican food heritage.