There’s something about Ruben Leal’s tortillas. These paper-thin rounds are made with just four ingredients — flour, salt, water and fat — but they are a far cry from the moon-white stacks of uniform tortillas wrapped in plastic that line the shelves of a typical grocery store.
Leal’s tortillas are produced in his Lawrence, Kansas, commercial kitchen and sold as Caramelo Tortillas. His not-so-secret ingredient is pork fat, which he gets from Local Pig in River Market (he also makes versions using duck fat and avocado oil). The idea is to replicate the tortillas Leal grew up with in his hometown of Hermosillo, the capital city of Sonora, Mexico.
“I moved to the U.S. about 16 years ago, and one of the things I missed the most was flour tortillas from back home,” Leal says. And the farther he got from the Mexican border — Leal relocated from Arizona to Texas and now Kansas — the more he felt like he needed to figure out how to make Sonoran-style tortillas on his own. “I looked up a recipe online and started tweaking it until I got what I found at home.”
This journey started in 2015, and for a while, it was Leal’s side hustle — until business demands caught up. Caramelo Tortillas has been Leal’s full-time gig for the last year and a half. Around 80 percent of the 12,000 tortillas Leal produces every week are shipped to out-of-state restaurants — most of them barbecue joints. He has a handful of clients in Texas (Brix Barbecue in Fort Worth, Smokin’ Z’s in Bayou Vista, Helberg Barbecue in Waco), Colorado (smōk and La Doña, both in Denver), Florida (Tacos & Hip Hop, West Palm Beach) and even Oregon (Holy Trinity Barbecue, Portland). When I ask him how his tortillas ended up entrenched in the barbecue world,
“I was either going to make tortillas or barbecue,” he says.
He tried barbecue for the first time when he moved to Texas and was immediately hooked: He purchased his own smoker and, eventually, he got “pretty good.” He kept tabs on ’cue culture around the country through Instagram, building relationships with fellow meatheads. Many of these folks became Caramelo Tortillas clients.
“A good friend started a barbecue truck in Virginia, and he was the first person I shipped tortillas to outside of Kansas,” Leal says. “He was very involved in the industry, and a lot of other barbecue personalities in the industry wanted to try the tortilla. Occasionally I’d reach out to people I respected and said, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to try these tortillas with your food.’ It’s slowly spread.”
Leal has a few theories as to why his tortillas are so desired among top pitmasters.
“They’re so thin that they don’t remove shine from the meat,” he says. “They enhance the product. When you’re spending 12 to 16 hours smoking meat, you want it to shine, and when you put brisket or pulled pork on the tortilla, all those flavors come through immediately. You’re not tasting a thick, floury piece of dough.”
Kyle Rensmeyer agrees. He owns Holy Trinity Barbecue, a celebrated weekend-only Texas-style ’cue cart in Portland. Since February, he’s been using Caramelo Tortillas for monthly taco specials, where he can highlight special barbecue items like smoked beef cheeks.
“His tortillas are like flat croissants,” Rensmeyer says. “They’re super buttery and flaky, and they’ve got this incredible light texture. With barbecue, you end up with these really heavy hot smoked meats, and his tortillas are really thin and light, so they’re a good plate for the meat.”
Bill Espiricueta has been using Caramelo Tortillas at his Denver barbecue restaurant smōk since he opened in August last year. At smōk, Espiricueta serves brisket and egg breakfast tacos along with dinner plates of pulled pork tacos with ginger slaw and brisket tacos.
“When you heat these tortillas up on the griddle, they puff up like pillows — almost like corn tortillas,” Espiricueta says. “I’ve never seen a flour tortilla that does that. Plus, the mouthfeel is chewy while still maintaining its softness, and it doesn’t get soggy. The structure is amazing. Every single person who eats our tacos are blown away and want to know where the tortillas are from. The tortilla complements everything we’re doing.”
TRY THEM: Caramelo Tortillas may be spreading to barbecue joints across the country, but you don’t have to venture too far to find them locally. Harp Barbecue in Raytown, Fox & Pearl in Kansas City and Red Kitchen Tamales in Lenexa all use Leal’s product, and you can purchase a pack of them at Local Pig’s retail counter in the City Market.