Nestled in the Superstition Mountains and along the Salt River, Tortilla Flat is one of the few slivers of the Old West still intact and largely unchanged. Cowboy boots clank on the old wooden boardwalk, antique pieces hang on the walls, and photos show that the view is nearly exactly what would have been seen by those traveling along the Apache Trail in the early 1900s.
Katherine Ellering, owner of Tortilla Flat and self-appointed mayor, and Chris Fields, her fiancé and director of operations, have invested heavily in the town, not to make it shiny and new but to make sure it remains preserved as the quirky, historical landmark that it is.
Tortilla Flat was founded in 1904 as a stagecoach stop, and neither fire nor flood destroyed the spirit along the Historic Apache Trail.
The trail played a monumental role in the construction of the Roosevelt Dam. Even before it was known as the Apache Trail, natives used the pass to transport water. In fact, stories date back to the mid-1500s, when Spanish Conquistadors explored the area.
Now, Tortilla Flat has a population of six, all of whom are staff. But it is still up and running with a restaurant, saloon, gift shop and even its own post office. It is known as “the town too tough to die,” after surviving numerous natural disasters throughout the years. Fields says although he and Ellering are fairly new owners, they have endured more than their fair share of incidents.
“We bought Tortilla Flat two years ago, September of 2019,” Fields says. “Before we got it, it almost burned down. Three weeks after we bought it, we had the 100-year flood that washed out the entire Apache Trail. Six months after we bought it, March of 2020, well, something happened there.”
Some may have taken this as an omen, but Ellering, Fields and staff made it their personal mission to save the town. They loved the history and recognized the importance of making sure it was passed down to further generations. Tortilla Flat needed major repairs. Fields says they spent about $500,000 in the last two years “recreating” the town. He emphasizes they didn’t change the bones. They just ensured the structures would last.
“We completely rebuilt the museum, head to toe. It’s a brand-new building, but it doesn’t look like it,” he says. “This whole area has been restored. If you look down the boardwalk, every single piece of wood has been retouched, treated, renailed, rescrewed. We’ve got new signs, new infrastructure, new plumbing. It’s an amazing list of things to make it look old and broken.”
While they didn’t change anything, Fields and Ellering did put their stamp to Tortilla Flat. An old-time jail cell was constructed on the property, in which guests can test their wit by solving a puzzle to escape.
Of course, there have also been some modifications to the food and merchandise. The restaurant has a new draft system with local beers on tap and has become famous for its chili. The corner store has treats, magnets, caps, mugs as well as housemade fudge and gelato. They are the world’s No. 1 procurer of prickly pear gelato. The back patio is a rustic space that occasionally features the Tortilla Flat Band, which plays rock classics.
Besides the food and beverages, the restaurant has several design quirks. The walls are hung with dozens of antiques, like shotguns, clocks, art, clothes and more. According to Ellering, every single piece was donated. In true Western spirit, no bar stools will be found here; guests sit on mounted saddles to get their drinks. Thousands of $1 bills line the building like wallpaper. Ellering says while she wasn’t sure the exact time it started, legend has it that it was initiated in the gold rush.
“They would come into the restaurant, looking for gold, and they would pin money up to the walls. That way, if they left and came back empty-handed, they’d at least have money for whiskey,” Ellering says. “Then, people started putting their names on it and it became their way of leaving their mark on a historical site. So, now we have over $500,000 on the walls and currency from over 100 countries.”
Tortilla Flat gets new bills regularly and has colored markers for guests to decorate their bill.
“Yes, it’s a business, and yes, we’re here for returns and profit, but this is a historical thing the community owns,” he says.
Tortilla Flat is a fun place for kids, parents, historians, cowboys, city folk and those just passing through. It’s the kind of place you could visit a dozen times and find something new each time.
Guests can learn Apache Nation’s history, enjoy a sweet scoop of gelato with the family, or imagine life in another time.
“There’s nothing like it. This is not a recreation; this is a one-of-a-kind place,” Ellering says.
1 Main Street, Tortilla Flat