Ingredients: Corn, Lime, Passion

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The Rube Goldberg−esque contraption turning out tortillas in a store window on an obscure side street in Corona is not a manifestation of homesick immigrants trying to recreate the foodways of their homeland. It is, instead, an example of the artisanal culinary movement as practiced by a couple of savvy young entrepreneurs getting in touch with their inner foodies.

Nixtamal is a tortilleria that turns out tortillas the old−fashioned way, from dried kernels of corn (masa), not from corn flour (maseca). They are probably the only ones doing it that way in New York City.

Nixtamal is the venture of Fernado Ruiz and Shauna Page. Ruiz was born in Brooklyn of Mexican parents. He began his career as a trader on Wall Street. He had just taken and passed his Series 55 exam, a license entitling him to actively participate in equity trading, on Sept. 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day.

“I could see equities trading wasn’t going to recover for a while,” said Ruiz, “so I decided to make a career change.”

He became a New York City firefighter.

Shauna Page, Ruiz’s partner in business and in life, is a California girl of American Indian descent. She received a BA in agricultural business from UC−Davis, and a master’s in agricultural and resource economics from Colorado State. Before turning her hand to tortillas, she worked as a consultant on “strategy and change implementa­tion” for corporate clients in fields such as pharmaceutical and utilities.

And so a collaboration of complementary talents began between someone credentialed in decision−making and one of New York’s Bravest — brains and guts. They rented a space and ordered equipment, including the sometimes balky Mexican tortilla maker, which according to Ruiz wasn’t even crated when it arrived. “It was wrapped in Saran wrap,” he marveled. They also hired an employee, Cecelia BalDovinos, who came steeped in the tortilla−making tradition from her native Paracho, Michoacan, the guitar−making capital of Mexico.

The process of making tortillas from corn begins in Nixtamal’s basement, where calcium hydroxide and water are added to dried kernels of food−grade corn.

Food−grade corn is not the stuff we eat in the summer on the cob, but what you’re likely to encounter on the ingredients lists of a host of food products. “In its unaltered state, it’s not very tasty,” Page remarked.

The corn and calcium hydroxide are cooked for two hours and left to steep for an additional eight. This process is called nixtimalization and the resulting product nixtamal. It affords several significant nutritional advantages over untreated maize products. It converts some of the niacin (and possibly other B vitamins) into a form more absorbable by the body, improves the availability of the amino acids and supplements the calcium content, balancing maize’s comparative excess of phosphorus.

The nixtamal is then thoroughly washed to remove most of the husks of the kernels and other debris. It is then mixed with a small amount of maseca (to improve the texture and pliability of the tortillas) and transferred to a grinder, which converts it into dough.

The dough then comes upstairs where it undergoes its final transformation. The dough is run through the hopper of the tortilla maker multiple times to knead it to the right consistency. When that is achieved, the machine forms measured pieces of dough into flat rounds and sends them along a conveyor belt into an oven and back out the other side as finished tortillas.

Nixtamal opened in December as a small restaurant with a takeout window serving fish tacos and chicken mole enchiladas wrapped in their signature tortillas. They also make tamales, using a version of the nixtamal in the tortillas. The tamales come in a range of flavors including a not−so­traditional Italian Special, stuffed with Italian sausage from their friendly neighboring Italian deli, Franco’s Meat & Deli. Then there’s Cecelia’s pozole soup, a hearty stew of whole corn kernels and pork.

Nixtamal’s clientele is a mix of foodies, seeking them out from afar on the weekends, and mostly Hispanic locals during the week. Nixtamal’s owners believe in giving back to the community, and to that end, they are allowing the Mexican Consulate the use of their restaurant as a satellite office from Sept. 22−26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This will give Queens’ Mexican community a convenient location for gaining assistance from the Mexican government in straightening out passport and other documentation issues.

We asked Page why the image of an American flag, overlaid with corn and chili, was chosen for their logo. She replied, “All of the Latino businesses in neighborhood display their flag in their windows, and we are American. Also, Fernando is very patriotic.”

If You Go

Tortilleria Nixtamal

104−05 47th Ave.

Corona, NY 11368


Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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