While gentrification continues to change the face of the Mission District, businesses like La Palma work hard to preserve tradition. Established in 1953, it is the second oldest Latino-owned business on Calle 24, and the only tortillería in San Francisco.
“I was pregnant with my first son when the Haro family was selling the business,” remembers Aida Ibarra, co-owner and founder. She, along with a couple of other families, bought the business 38 years ago. As time went by, the other families sold out their shares and Aida brought on her husband Ruben Ibarra, and her sister Theresa Pasion as business partners.
“We used to do a lot of birthday parties, quinceañeras…now people say ‘we’re having a going away party, we’re leaving the city.’ When you hear that, it goes to your heart because these people, they’re forced to leave because they can’t afford to stay here, and we feel honored that their last meal is from us…those are the ones you worry about.”
Today, Aida handles the finances, orders, and accounting. Theresa manages the production and retail aspects of the business. And Ruben co-owns the business with Aida and is in charge of the menu and food preparation.
Every day around lunchtime, the establishment sees a rush of customers who come in for freshly cooked pupusas, burritos, tamales, carnitas and a variety of guisados like mole and chile verde made daily.
But the crown jewel of the business has always been the humble corn tortilla. To make a good tortilla, you must have good masa. At La Palma, it starts with GMO-free corn that is nixtamalized, a process developed by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations more than 1200 years ago. The dry corn is soaked and cooked in water and lime, then ground into masa.
La Palma sells a combination of hand-made and machine-made tortillas, with machines used to supplement the growing demand. Theresa estimates that on a slow day, they produce between 5-10 thousand tortillas for retail sale.
La Palma also sells masa by the pound, which home-cooks can use to make their own tortillas, tamales, pupusas and sopes. However, La Palma’s owners notice the traditions around home cooking have changed.
“Lots of kids come in here and say…‘my grandmother passed away, I didn’t learn how to make tamales, so now I’m here to get a pound of masa, I’m gonna try to do it’”
Theresa advises young cooks to learn from their elders while they still can. “They regret not learning when they’re younger…if you don’t learn from your grandma, your aunt, or somebody … the masa, the tamal will be a dying breed.”
They’ve also noticed a change in their catering orders. “We used to do a lot of birthday parties, quinceañeras…now people say ‘we’re having a going away party, we’re leaving the city’”, said Theresa. “When you hear that, it goes to your heart because these people, they’re forced to leave because they can’t afford to stay here, and we feel honored that their last meal is from us…those are the ones you worry about.”
A change in demographics has also created crowds of customers who give bad reviews when their food is not ready immediately.
“You need to have time and patience for us…we don’t mass produce…everything is done by hand,” said Aida. “If we just had to open a package of flour tortillas…[if] we do it the simple way like everyone, then what would make us different?”
But despite these changes, the team at La Palma is determined to continue preserving tradition through food. Theresa assures customers:
“We’re not going anywhere…that’s something we want people to know.”