by Kevin Vaughn
Photos by Paz Olivares-Droguett
Food is what anchors me to my past. I come from a small town in the very center of California, a town with a population of 30,000 and half of which were of Mexican descent. It rained tacos. Taco trucks on random country back roads that catered to local migrant workers, restaurants and stands on every corner of the main avenue, tiny taquerias nestled into the corner of little grocery stores. The shop I always return to when I go home sells them for $1.50, and that´s not even the cheapest option. Always served on paper plates or just on top of a piece of foil, the filling decorated with a simple pico de gallo and absolutely zero pretensions. Biting into that freshly warmed corn tortilla is one of life´s beautiful delights. And so the feeling was one of tragic defeat after an exhaustive search for the simplest of Mexican staples. To give the locals some context, imagine arriving to a strange and wonderful land exploding from the eyeballs with ham and cheese but only generic empanada shells, you´re so close it hurts !
Then I discovered the existence of Tortillas Pancho Villa and the game changed completely. Like a light beaming down from the heavens, these homemade wonders lit up my kitchen and I´m never turning back. Pancho Villa is the godsend of Gabi Setién and her husband Pablo Schidlowski. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, she joined her Argentine husband in Buenos Aires and like many North American expatriates the lack of spice was a big dilemma. She performed the same exhaustive search before deciding to convert her kitchen into Buenos Aires' first authentic tortilleria.
Cooking for others is a total act of love, and Gabi truly understands that. What was initially a simple desire to have a little bit of Mexico in Buenos Aires has turned Gabi into a motherly figure to all the hungry North American expats.
Where are you originally from?
My blood is pure Mexican. I was born in the state of Veracruz, in a city called Córdoba. I feel really proud to be Mexican and to have been born in the state where the popular song La Bamba was born. Veracruz is along the gulf of Mexico.
How did you arrive to Buenos Aires?
I arrived to this marvelous country because of love. I met my husband, he is Argentine, in Toronto, Canada. Sometimes things just happen in life and we had to leave Canada. We have been in Argentina since 2006.
How did Tortillas Pancho Villa begin?
I was really out of my element here, I really missed my food and obviously my roots. In Canada there is a large Latino population and it was really easy to get my tortillas, spices and all of the other things that I was used to having. When I arrived here I started looking for tortillas everywhere and I couldn´t find anything, there were a few people that sold them but the prices were pretty outrageous. For a girl that was working as a salesgirl it was like buying caviar! I just didn’t think it was fair. There are quite a few Mexicans in this city, some that are well off and others that don’t have the same luck, and so my husband and I decided to make them to sell at a price that was accessible to everyone. My husband, although Argentine, began making tortillas, he did a lot of investigation, we started selling by the kilo and it would take us forever to finish them. Slowly we have improved the production, although I think we are still at the beginning of a long road, it hasn’t been easy but not impossible either.
We want the gastronomic community and all Argentines to know the real and authentic Mexican food. We want our products to be accessible so that anybody can buy them. Pancho Villa was born from a basic necessity and tradition that us Mexicans are so attached to, we could give up bread but never the tortilla, never! I’d really like to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart, all of the North Americans that have always helped us out, getting our name out there. People from Los Angeles, from Texas, from all of the US, there is a lot of influence from those places in our food, for the Mexican immigration that exists in the US. Here we are, Pancho Villa was birthed and we slowly continue to grow.
There are a lot of foreigners in this city that complain about the food here, but what I’m interested in knowing is what are the things that you like about Argentine cuisine?
What I like the most is the pasta and the pizza, and the famous pastries. I’m not much of a carnivore but I will agree that Argentina has excellent beef. I think that in Argentina people are really traditional with food, not as accustomed to trying new flavors. When a foreigner arrives here you really notice that there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in typical dishes, maybe I do even more so because in Mexico every region has their own distinct food. I think that right now you can see that things are slowly beginning to diversify, it’s not hard to find Chinese, Peruvian, Japanese or Criolla. Something that I wish I saw more of is restaurants to go eat seafood.
What do you cook when you miss Mexico?
When I miss Mexico I prepare some huevos rancheros with a really spicy salsa and some refried beans, some spicy chilaquiles, spicy bean tostadas with lettuce and cheese, avocado and tomato and some shredded chicken. I always have tortillas obviously, and so I feel like there is a little piece of Mexico in Buenos Aires, in my house tortillas, frijoles and chilies are never absent.
Do you have any plans/dreams of expanding Pancho Villa into a restaurant, or maybe the first Mexican puerta cerrada?
No, not really. Opening a restaurant or a closed door requires a lot more knowledge about good and authentic Mexican food. I make corn and flour tortillas, salsas, stuff like that, I can do quick and simple dishes that are of course always really spicy, but I don’t really consider myself an expert in Mexican cuisine. What we would like to do is open the first Mexican tortilla shop, so that people can come by whenever they want to get hot tortillas, that’s our goal.
Have you always been interested in cooking, or did you learn more as a necessity? Who taught you how to cook?
I learned more out of necessity. Like I said, it was really difficult to get tortillas and the light bulb just went off. I learned how to make them, and later we decide to commercialize it because we began meeting other people with the same love for tortillas. I’m really not a great chef, when I was small I liked to be in the kitchen and help with whatever I could. If there was something that I could consider a specialty are my pecan cookies which are easy and delicious! I used to sell them around Christmas time, save the money and go on vacation.
Could you share a recipe with us ?
I would like to share my favorite recipe which is Huevos Rancheros, a really typical Mexican breakfast. You need 8 eggs, 8 tortillas, 3 tomatoes that have been grilled and skinned, 1 clove of garlic and an onion also grilled, 3 jalapeños grilled and skinned (leave a little bit of the charred skin to give it a smokier flavor) and some salt to taste. This recipe is for four people. First, chop and then grind up the chile, onion and garlic (its easiest with a blender). Heat up a little bit of oil or lard in a pan, heat tortillas, set them aside, pat off excess fat and cover to maintain heat. Now, fry up the eggs in the same pan, when they are ready it on top of tortillas and bathe them with the salsa.
I also want to share some tricks and secrets about Huevos Rancheros. There are a lot of variations of huevos rancheros which are extremely popular and have been adapted in a lot of different ways outside of Mexican cuisine. The most traditional recipes are the ones that use fried corn tortillas with fried or scrambled eggs with a really spicy tomato salsa, refried beans, avocado and olives and fried potatoes, and don’t forget chilies.
Enjoy! A full belly is a happy heart!
Check out our other Extranjero interviews, #1 with Paz and Estefanía from Chile and #2 with Evy from the USA.