Don't Call Them Tortilla Chips

Temescal restaurant Doña Tomás serves guacamole and totopos.


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Totopos are like tortilla chips, but these at Doña Tomás are extra thick and crisp but flaky.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Even tortilla chips have a history.

Deep-frying some misshapen assembly-line tortillas that would otherwise have been discarded at her family’s El Zarape Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles sometime during the 1940s, Rebecca Webb Carranza created innovative party snacks. Dubbed “Tort Chips,“ they became El Zarape’s core product.

Copied avidly ever since, those chips are now a multibillion-dollar industry.

But predating Carranza’s invention by centuries, long handcrafted by indigenous Zapotecs along Oaxaca’s isthmus of Tehuantepec, are Mexico’s ancestral crispy breads: totopos.

Made of salted masa patted down into disk or triangle shapes, poked with ventilation-holes, then toasted or baked by being pressed to the walls of tandoori-like, circular comixcal ovens, totopos are eaten fresh — usually to scoop up soft foods.

They aren’t tortilla chips, yet the two terms are often used interchangeably.

According to the menu at Doña Tomás, those crispy triangles served alongside the Temescal restaurant’s famously creamy guacamole are totopos.

“Instead of calling it ‘guacamole and chips,’ we prefer to say ‘guacamole and totopos,’” explained owner Dona Savitsky, an experienced chef who also owns Flora and Tacubaya. “We use the term totopos in a loose sense — not the original sense.”

But that doesn’t make their preparation any less crucial. From a family-owned local company, “we buy one style of tortilla meant especially for our chips, which we cut and fry freshly in-house every day.”

Choosing that brand and style took work.

“We ordered a whole bunch of tortillas from different companies, including some that are especially recommended for making chips. We cut them, fried them, and did a blind tasting. Different masas not only have different colors. They also have different flavors — some taste cornier than others. And, once they’re fried, you get different types of bite.

“Personally, I like chips to be extra-thick and crisp but flaky, almost layered, with bubbles — not brittle and thin.”

At Doña Tomás — most of whose fare is gluten-free — the chips are fried in frequently changed canola oil, because to fry tortilla chips properly, “you need to choose an oil with a high smoking point.”

Greasy chips haven’t been fried at a hot enough temperature, she said.

Whatever we choose to call a tortilla chip, said Savitsky, who cooked at renowned San Francisco restaurants Square One and Ernie’s before launching Doña Tomás in 1999, “it’s a vehicle to get good stuff that you don’t eat with a fork into your mouth.”

Doña Tomás, 5004 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-450-0522, DonaTomas.com.

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