Albert Guerra makes the gordita dough in a giant stainless-steel bowl. He eyeballs a good pour of masa harina and follows it up with generous amounts of salt and grated yellow cheddar.
Where We Went
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Northern states are digging themselves out from under the snow in the winter while residents of Las Cruces get to enjoy 350 days of sunshine.
Next, he props the bowl precariously on the edge of the sink and adds warm tap water before he aggressively kneads the mixture into a cohesive mass. People ask him for the recipe all the time, but it's all done by feel and sight. “I don't know. I just do it,” he says.
Left: Virginia Guerra, mother of third-generation manager Albert Guerra, rolls balls of dough in the back kitchen.
Right: Third-generation manager Albert Guerra, photographed in the seating area at Saenz Gorditas.
Albert and his family operate Saenz Gorditas, a restaurant located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, housed in what used to be a drive-up burger joint. Cars park out front under a corrugated tin awning, and you half expect to see waitresses on roller skates handing off burgers and shakes. A small building houses the kitchen, and the seating is all outdoors. Customers place their orders at one window and pick them up at the next a few minutes later. I take a seat at one of the plastic picnic benches under the awning; others choose to eat in their cars.
Owner Virginia Guerra learned to make gorditas from her mother and has been making them herself for more than 40 years. She and her family used to cook at local events and festivals around Las Cruces; eventually, customers and fans encouraged them to set up something more permanent. A space off North Solano Drive had been vacant for about a year when Virginia inquired about it in 1996. A month later, she was open for business. “I didn't even remodel. I just walked in and cleaned.”
The first menu was simple: gorditas and tacos. But 22 years later, both the business and the menu have grown. Albert turns the masa mixture onto a table, and Virginia pulls up a stool. It's a sizable mountain of dough, enough to make about 1,000 gorditas, and it will take Virginia about 3 hours to get through.
Grabbing one handful at a time, she rolls the dough into a ball between her wet hands and then presses the ball into a perfect ½-inch-thick puck using a small Pyrex pie dish (her tool of choice). She's attached to the dish but is still heartbroken since her favorite dough press fell from the counter and broke.
Shaping gorditas takes Virginia to her happy place, and each disk she forms is as perfect as the next. “I love it,” she says. “I sit here and just relax . . . and think of everything I need to do tomorrow!”
If You Go
Restaurant: Saenz Gorditas
Address: 1700 N. Solano Drive., Las Cruces, NM 88001
What we ate (and loved): Gorditas, tacos, and horchata.
Insider tip: When a restaurant has “gorditas” in the name, you order the gorditas. You can’t go wrong with any of the fillings. We ate the ground beef, green chile, and red chile beef gorditas and they were all good. I especially liked the ground beef, which is laced with soft potatoes in a light tomato-based broth. The menu is small, all the food is made fresh, and it’s all impossibly affordable for the quality and volume of what you get. The gorditas are less than $2.50 each, but on Tuesdays they run a special where they knock the price down to $1.35 per gordita. The limit is 12 per customer, you animal.