by Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Katie Ellering, one of Tortilla Flat’s new owners, isn’t about modernizing the remnant of the Old West town.
She and her fiance/operations director, Chris Field, just want to bring a fresh look to the tourist attraction, which boasts a population of six.
“The most important thing to remember is we—the owners—are temporary,” says Field, who lives in Gilbert with Ellering.
“We’re transitioning what Tortilla Flat was into the 21st century. We’re not a sports bar or a strip mall that’s going to be gone in 10 years. This is a historical Arizona property that will be here for another 100 years. Our goal, as caretakers, is property maintenance, and we want to keep the look and the feel and provide programming to make sure we’ll be able to pass it on.”
Ellering has owned it since September with partners Ryan Coady, Tom Misitano and Dale Evans.
“We thought this was such a unique thing, and we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’” Ellering says. “We got together and made it work.”
So far, the team has upgraded the kitchen and the food on the menu, except—Ellering and Field are quick to add—the famous chili recipe that’s been around since the 1940s.
“It’s a time-honored tradition, and that will not change,” she says.
The chili, which is also found on the chili dog, is part of a hearty American menu that includes the Mucho Macho nacho ($15.99); Roosevelt “Dam” Good wings ($7.99 starting price); Gaucho cheesesteak ($12.49); Ol’ Faithful BLT ($11.49); chicken street tacos ($12.59) and fajita salad ($14.39).
“We have great food,” Field says. “We do. Is our food better than what you’ll find elsewhere? Maybe. We’re trying to create an experience. It’s a little gem of an experience.”
After having a meal in the saloon, guests can head to the Tortilla Flat General Store and Ice Cream Shop, where they can enjoy its well-known prickly pear gelato, or take home prickly pear barbecue sauce or a Tortilla Flat “Killer Chili” packet.
The owners have heard plenty of heartwarming stories from visitors to Tortilla Flat. They see children dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls and the awe on their face when they’re out there.
“They’re used to growing up in the city, and when they come out here, they play in the dirt and see cactus everywhere,” she says. “They have a lot of fun. They have a lot of fun with the dollar bills, too.
“I got a letter a few months ago that had a dollar bill in it. A young kid had taken one of the dollars off of the wall (at Superstition Saloon and Restaurant) and had written us a letter of apology and sent us the dollar bill back. It was really cute.”
The couple have been visited by folks who have donated the collectibles that fill the saloon, like the saddles that sit atop hand-carved bar stools and worn leather goods that are tacked to the walls.
One of the fun parts of Tortilla Flat is its history and games. Field explained that in the frontier days, if there were more than 100 permanent residents, you were considered a town or settlement and you’re officially on the map.
“Tortilla Flat was never big enough to have that prestige,” he says. “We were big enough to have a post office. Because of that, there’s no real town hall records or building plans. Most of what we know about Tortilla Flat has been assembled by different people who were here.”
No one knows the real story behind the name, Tortilla Flat. But one is believable, Field says. It’s understood that it came from a family who was caught in a monsoon in the 1930s in the area. After being stuck for a couple days, all they had left was masa and water.
“They were down to eating tortillas for the last couple of days,” he says. “So, they called it Tortilla Flat.”
A man who visited in the early 2000s said he lived there when he was a child. He sketched a picture on a napkin of the town before fires and floods ravaged it. It included the Goldbrick Motel, which was constructed from mud bricks manufactured on-site out of clay in the ground and then mixed with gold dust from the local miners in the Superstitions at the time.
The kitchenettes in the motels were rented to tourists until 1987 when a fire destroyed the entire town. A building that replaced it houses the gift shop and post office.
“Every time it rains, we have a little creek alongside the property,” he says. “You can see little shiny flecks.”
Other stories revolve around the items that adorn the walls of the saloon.
“One of the funny things is, maybe a month ago, there was a couple here who were like, ‘Hey, that stuff right there is ours—that gun and jacket. We donated that,’” Ellering recalls.
“People are so proud to have their things up on the wall and just be a part of history. There are some really cool, fun stories and things that happen out here.”
Tortilla Flat is a self-sufficient little town, according to Ellering.
“We’ve got a sewer plant. We’ve got a water plant. We do process our own water,” she says.
“However, we don’t even have a phone line. We can’t get a landline here. So, when people call us, they don’t know that they’re calling a cellphone because we don’t have a landline. We can’t get the internet.”
Field and the all-female leadership team—Ellering, restaurant manager Renee Lockhart, restaurant supervisor Marba Carroll, kitchen manager Kaleena Gallegos and retail manager Stephany Duarte—are planning some improvements, though. They include painting signs and creating a town newspaper with treasure hunts for kids, a historical crossword puzzle and stories of Tortilla Flat.
“I’ll be all silly advertisements, like period pieces,” Field says. “I have this really fun idea.”
Field says Tortilla Flat, which also houses a museum, is perfect for a day visit for Valley families during the pandemic.
“You don’t have to commit to a day of travel or two days of travel,” he says. “You can spend a half day with us and get away from all the craziness.
“Our goal is to take what’s here and just make sure that it looks fantastic. It’s in repair so people can create memories with their families long after we’re dead and gone.”
1 Main Street, Tortilla Flat