Ask any Tex-pat what they miss most about the Lone Star State and, more often than not, they'll bemoan the loss of their beloved H-E-B. Based out of San Antonio, Texas, H-E-B was originally founded in 1909 and now boasts over 350 stores spread throughout the state. It is Texans' go-to grocery for fresh produce, hot and cold prepared foods, as well as numerous Texas-made packaged goods marked with the tell-tale "Go Texan" stamp of approval.
When I land back on Texas soil, H-E-B is the first place I go to stock up on my favorite green hot sauce, the special in-house San Antonio chili powder purchased by the pound in bulk, and a pallet of Topo Chico to stay hydrated during my visit. But before I add anything to my cart, I head to the large humming tortilla machine.
The Best Part of Grocery Shopping in Texas Is the Fresh Tortilla Samples
The tortilla machine is usually located near one of the entrances and surrounded by crates filled with masa and freshly baked tortillas for sale, their plastic twist-top bags puffy with steam.
Nestled between the warm stacks of butter, flour, and mitad y mitad tortillas always sits a round, flat plastic container fitted firmly with a lid. Inside, at nearly any hour of the day, are samples of those fresh tortillas cut into generous wedges and meant for snacking while you finish your shopping. Sometimes, if the machine is actively staffed by one of the H-E-B bakers, they'll hand you a whole tortilla fresh off the press.
The Fresh Tortillas Are Just the Beginning of H-E-B's Offerings
The tortillas-while-you-shop perk is just one of the many aspects of H-E-B that many Texans take for granted. It isn't until we move away and find ourselves at other different grocery stores that we fully understand what we had.
We quickly come to realize all the other great qualities we miss about H-E-B, like the diverse and historic cultural communities — from places including Vietnam, Laos, the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, and Central and South America — that make up Texas' rich foodways and influence what you can find in H-E-B stores throughout the state.
This diversity means you can buy everything from sambal oelek and plantain chips to tahini and digestive biscuits depending upon the region of the store. An entire aisle dedicated to grocery staples like bread and peanut butter and jelly also lists picante sauce because it's just that important. You can also buy one of those nifty little tortilla warmers that hold those delicious fresh tortilla samples over by the press.
According to a 2018 national poll, H-E-B ranks as the fifth most popular grocery store in America, trailing behind the likes of Trader Joe's and Wegmans. Many regional grocery store aficionados will argue that their store is better than the others or claim that these same qualities can be found in various forms across the nation. And this is always my response: But do they have an in-house tortilla press that gives out free samples while you shop?
Have you been to an H-E-B? Have you tried these tortilla samples?