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In a nondescript strip mall, workers at Gorditas Doña Tota knead and press dough into hockey-puck-shaped cakes. At the counter, customers are greeted in Spanish.
It’s here on San Pedro Avenue, just blocks away from the North Star Mall, where in 2006 the Mexican fast-food chain first planted its flag in the U.S. The restaurant traces its humble beginnings to Ciudad Victoria in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Carlota Murillo began selling her wares out of a street food cart in 1952. Since then, it has expanded to a restaurant franchise that includes 282 locations throughout Mexico. The chain’s eight U.S. stores are spread across South Texas, including San Antonio, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley.
The secret to Doña Tota’s popularity lies in its original recipes, which have been unaltered in the nearly 70 years since its founding, said Jose “Andres” Marceleno, who manages the franchise’s four San Antonio locations.
Guisos, or stews, are stuffed into the griddled corn- and flour-based dough to form gorditas. The fillings offered at Doña Tota are wide-ranging: Customers can opt for picadillo, or Mexican beef hash; carne deshebrada, shredded brisket in an adobo sauce; chicharrón en salsa verde, fried pork rinds in green salsa; and bean and cheese, among other menu items.
Mexican nationals have long made up a high percentage of North Star Mall customers. Marceleno said many of the restaurant’s clientele comes from visiting Mexican shoppers and the surrounding neighborhood, which has become more populated by Latinos in recent years.
Demographics are part of the reason why Doña Tota is exploring real estate near the Brooks community on the South Side and hopes to open a store next year.
“We have a high population of Hispanics on that side of town,” he said. “I can just imagine opening one store would [garner a lot of business].”
South Texas’ many majority-Hispanic communities were the primary reason entrepreneurs decided to buy franchise rights to the Doña Tota name in the 2000s, Marceleno said. The chain opened restaurants as distant as Dallas, but that store closed within just a few years of its launch.
Carlos Garces grew up eating Doña Tota’s gorditas in Matamoros, Mexico. The location in the northern state of Tamaulipas was one of Garces’ family’s favorite after-church dining spots. Because it was such a mom-and-pop operation – the gorditas were griddled in the extension of a family home – Garces was surprised to see the name crop up years later in San Antonio.
“I’m happy it made it across the border,” he said, adding that as a kid he enjoyed the bean and cheese variety and now favors the chicharrón gorditas with salsa verde. “They are fond memories I’ve gotten to experience again.”
Now residing in Phoenix, Garces lamented the lack of authentic Mexican food the Southwestern city has in comparison to San Antonio.
Although the menu for the San Antonio locations and two Laredo stores does not exactly mirror the restaurant chain’s menu in Mexico – the Rio Grande Valley stores, owned by a separate franchise, offer a slightly different menu as well – the owners’ adherence to tradition has kept other fare off the menu. But Marceleno said the franchise is beginning to consider augmenting its menu with tacos.
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While gorditas are prevalent in San Antonio during Fiesta, the comal-griddled pockets aren’t as much of a household name as other Mexican and Tex-Mex food items that are more readily found here. That’s likely because a lot of work goes into making the masa, said Jose Ralat, the taco editor at Texas Monthly.
In San Antonio, if a restaurant does not make its own tortillas, they can go to their nearest tortilleria and order freshly made, authentic tortillas, Ralat said. However, a restaurant that sells gorditas has to make the masa pockets from scratch, which can be a lot of work for a restaurant the size of Gorditas Doña Tota’s San Pedro location. At any time, about three to five staffers are on hand, with one taking cashier duties.
After nearly 70 years of specializing in gorditas, the purveyors of the Doña Tota brand in the U.S. like to imagine a future where gorditas are as part of the everyday vernacular as tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.
“Doña Tota has been around for a long time,” Marceleno said. “We want it to continue for an even longer time.”