Tortillería San Roman: Father-son duo making fresh tortillas daily
Tortillería San Roman in South Philly's Italian Market specializes in the ancient Mexican food staple - the tortilla.
On weekday mornings between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., entrepreneur Francisco Rivera dedicates himself to making tortillas. The process begins by mixing corn flour with water. Once the mass becomes soft and fresh, it is flattened and placed into the tortilla machine. The long squeaky conveyor belt then cuts and cooks the dough into warm paper bundles.
“We serve the freshest tortillas possible directly to the client,” Rivera said with a smile. “Serving fresh tortillas is very common in Mexico, but there are not too many places like this in Philadelphia.”
While uncommon in the United States, tortillerías abound in Mexico (even Walmarts in the country have dedicated tortillerías). The ancient food staple dates back to the time of the Mayas in Southern Mexico, but the small, round cornbread was given the name tortilla, meaning little cake, when the Spanish arrived to the continent.
Rivera’s journey as a tortilla maker began in May 2009 when he opened up a tortillería, named San Roman in honor of his deceased father, in South Philly’s Italian Market. The idea came from one of his brothers who owns a tortillería and corn farm in the family's native Tlaxcala, Mexico. Rivera’s siblings, who also have jobs as construction workers in Maryland, would travel to Philadelphia on the weekends to help Rivera set up the store and cultivate the technique of making tortillas.
“I deeply thank my brothers for taking the time to teach me the process,” Rivera said. “It would not have been possible without them.”
In addition to the corn tortillas made daily, the store also sells homemade chips and salsa. To create the chips, they cut the tortillas into four to eight pieces then fry them in corn oil. Among the salsas are pico de gallo (tomatoes, onion, jalapenos and cilantro) as well as guacamole (avocado, onion, serrano and jalapeno chilis), salsa verde (tomatillo and jalapeno) and salsa roja (chile de arbol, onion and tomatoes).
Prior to opening his own business, Rivera had worked in Mexico as a welder for Ibamex, helping construct equipment for the Modelo beer company. Quickly realizing he never would make enough money to support a family, he came to the U.S. where he worked in construction in Maryland and Pennsylvania. This job allowed him to save up enough funds to eventually open the tortillería.
“It was really challenging at first,” explained Jonathan Rivera, Francisco Rivera’s son who helps him run the business. “The first challenge was the language barrier. The second challenge was understanding the different laws applicable to the business.”
In his role at the tortillería, Jonathan is responsible not just for helping to make the food, but also for greeting customers and creating the company’s brand and online presence.
“It’s tricky to communicate with people through online social networks,” said Jonathan. “We are working on our online branding.”
Upcoming changes for the business include a revamping of the website and an additional location elsewhere in Philadelphia.
“The plan is to expand,” said Rivera. “We are trying to figure out the best place to open a new location. I am thankful people have believed in us and our product.”
To learn more about Tortillería San Roman and to stay up to date with their latest developments, check out their website or Facebook page. Tortillería San Roman IS open Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. They are located at 951 South 9th Street, Philadelphia 19147 in the Italian Market. A pack of 30 tortillas costs $2.25.