Meet the Masa Masters of Texas (2022)

This story is a part of Texas Monthly’s Taco Week, a series dedicated to proving that Texas is the center of the taco universe.

Palm-size balls of corn masa sit atop clear cling wrap on a metal utility table. One is russet in color; the other is azure. Both are speckled black, with the occasional dull freckle of yellow to remind you that they’re made with 2 of the 62 varieties of non-GMO heirloom Mexican corn. Their texture is evocative of play dough but softer, finer, and soothing to the touch. I press my fingers into one of the balls, flattening it and leaving troughs where my digits had rested. I pick up it and form the masa back into a ball.

Corn masa is the dough from which many Mexican foods are made, including tortillas, the foundation of Mexican culture. The process that leads to this perfect food is nixtamalization, in which corn kernels are cooked and steeped in a mixture of calcium hydroxide and water. A chemical reaction separates the hull from the interior pericarp, releasing trapped nutrients. The kernels are then rinsed and ground in a molino (mill). From kernel to tortilla, nixtamalization can take anywhere from 6 to 24 hours. Originally, the Mesoamericans used hardwood ash in the alkaline solution—some 3,500 years ago—in place of the contemporary calcium hydroxide, otherwise known as cal. Cal is white, rocky, and chalky. It powders easily and falls from a cup into a vat of corn kernels and water like fine flour.

Mastering the process requires accounting for the properties of the corn, humidity in the room, the ratio of cal to water needed for specific varieties of corn, and a lot of mistakes. The ball of masa I’m cradling in my hand is the result of such trials and errors. It’s the work of Olivia López and Jonathan Percival, co-owners of Molino Olōyō. It’s their workspace I’m standing in, a leased section of a commissary kitchen tucked away in a Dallas Design District shopping center. López and Percival are rising stars on Dallas’s culinary scene. While their reputation has grown quickly—with López as the face—they are only the latest to join a growing community of artisans and chefs revitalizing ancient traditions in novel ways.

Celebrity isn’t usually bestowed on individuals working with corn—at least not in the U.S.—but it’s a welcome surprise for López. A native of Colima, a state on Mexico’s central Pacific coast, she was working as chef de cuisine at Billy Can Can in Dallas when she decided to take a sabbatical to return to Mexico and learn traditional cooking methods. She hadn’t learned much about preparing those types of dishes from her mother. “She is not a cook,” López says. “She never told me about blue corn or anything traditional. She grew up with Maseca and white corn.” López took culinary classes in Colima and met with Ricardo Fabián, the owner of a corn cooperative there. When López began to take pictures of the corn during her visit, Fabián was displeased. “Do you know how many people start taking pictures? There are people who waste my time just to come for pictures and then take credit for the corn. They’re not really here to learn about the corn,” he scolded her. “I immediately apologized and took out my notebook,” she told me. Fabián urged her to ask herself if she was serious about corn. It was a turning point for her.

Upon her return to Dallas, López began to tinker with nixtamalization. Of the major non-GMO heirloom Mexican corn purveyors, she chose to work with Masienda. López and Percival established Pequeño Farms in Dallas. The produce they grew there was used to make tamales and other masa products, which they sold at farmers’ markets. The turning point was when an affluent Dallasite asked the pair to cater a dinner. After that, Molino Olōyō was invited to festivals, fielded private dinner requests, collaborated with chefs at their restaurants, and supplied corn tortillas to restaurants, including Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q in Grapevine. Eventually, it began to take preorders for weekend pickups.

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López was heralded in the Dallas Morning News by writer Leslie Brenner as part of a new wave of tortilla makers and molineros (millers). While Brenner acknowledged that Dallas has a long history of masa trailblazing, she went back only as far as 1996 in her argument. The story is much older than 26 years. As magnificent as López and Percival’s work is and as much as they’ve done to push Dallas’s masa culture forward, Molino Olōyō is only the latest in a long line of establishments that have been quietly sustaining nixtamalization in North Texas.

In 1924, Maria Luna established the Luna Tortilla Factory in Dallas with just two molinos. In 1938, the business moved to a larger space on a corner at McKinney Avenue and Caroline Street in Little Mexico, which is Uptown and home to the original El Fenix Tex-Mex restaurant and its sister restaurant Meso Maya. After moving a couple of times, Luna Tortilla Factory remains open almost a century later. Its current owner is Maria’s son Francisco Luna. In 1950, Ruben and Elvira Leal opened the Dallas Tortilla Factory, which made masa, tortillas, and tamales for retail and wholesale. Slightly farther west in Fort Worth, the Ibarra Tortilleria began its nixtamal operation in 1977.

The use of nixtamalization to make masa has been a touchstone of Texas foodways for centuries. Nixtamalization was practiced before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but it was relegated to home cooking. The first Texas- and United States–based corn nixtamalization and milling commercial operation cited in print was established by José Bartolome Martinez in 1896. The company was named Molinos Azteca. In 1908, Martinez introduced a revolutionary new product to San Antonio—masa harina, with the brand name Tamalina (also called Masolina). It was produced by Martinez’s subsidiary Tamalina Milling Company. The companies Martinez founded remain open as B. Martinez Sons, albeit with a much smaller market presence.

Molinos Azteca and its sister company weren’t the only early pioneers of nixtamal tortillas. Sanitary Tortilla Manufacturing Company opened in San Antonio on September 1, 1925. Now on its third owner, Sanitary continues to champion nixtamal and provides tortillas and masa for renowned restaurants and small operations alike. The name is uttered with such reverence and love that current proprietor Luis Garcia refuses to change the name of business, even though it has roots in early twentieth-century racism and bigotry. Among the major restaurants using Sanitary’s masa is San Antonio’s Mixtli, which opened in 2013 to instant praise for its seasonally rotating menus of modern takes on traditional Mexican food.

Elsewhere in the state, notable nixtamal tortilla operations include La Colonial, which opened in 1972 in El Paso; Casa Rica in the Panhandle town of Plainview, opened in 1985; Leal’s in Muleshoe, near the New Mexico border, which opened on May 4, 1957; and Manuel’s Tortilla Factory, opened in Odessa in 1946.

Even earlier, though, were operations such as the masa delivery offered by the El Porvenir company in Laredo. Owner Rafael Peña also sold home-kitchen molinos, as seen in a 1907 ad in the Spanish-language El Democrata Frontizero newspaper of Laredo. In an advertisement published the same year in another Spanish-language newspaper, El Regidor in San Antonio, D. Fernandez’s general store sold chiles, herbs, spices, and kitchen appliances, including molinos for nixtamal. Products were available for mail order and delivery. D. Fernandez was established in 1878, almost a decade before Molinos Azteca. But I can find no evidence that the shop was also nixtamalizing and milling corn for retail. Three years prior, though, Mexican street vendors peddling tortillas, pan dulce, and home goods were saturating the market, according to the Galveston Daily News. Meanwhile, El Paso Herald journalists were monitoring the consolidation of molineros across the Rio Grande and its impact on corn prices. Tortillerias, molinos, and nixtamal were an essential part of daily life across the state, even if some Texans weren’t exactly pleased with their growing presence.

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A bigger player also entered the game at around this time: Gruma, founded outside Monterrey, Mexico, in 1949, is the most popular masa harina and tortilla company in the world, known for making Maseca. Its commodity tortillas and masa harina can be found at small Mexican grocers and big-box retailers such as Walmart. Maseca is also the masa harina likely used by your local tortilleria or taqueria boasting of “handmade tortillas.” As of 2019, the corporation held 80 percent of the tortilla market and 20 percent of the masa harina market in the U.S. Some people—even those knowledgeable about the differences between masa harina and nixtamal masa—still prefer Maseca. “It’s just something I like,” says Pati Jinich, a James Beard Award–winning food television host and cookbook author who grew up in Mexico City.

Indeed, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans feel the same way—you’re likely to see a bag of Gruma tortillas or masa harina on their kitchen counters. Hopefully, as people become more exposed to and educated about the nixtamalization process, those types of products will become more prevalent in the home.

Despite a century’s worth of prominent nixtamal tortilla operations, their reception in Dallas restaurants has been bumpy. Regino Rojas, owner of Revolver Taco Lounge in Dallas, introduced house-nixtamalized non-GMO corn during his pandemic pop-up La Resistencia and in the reservation-only, prix fixe Purépecha Room in Revolver’s private dining space. The fragrant, coarsely textured tortillas were an exciting development for Rojas. When he replaced his previous Maseca-based tortillas with the nixtamal tortillas at his flagship restaurant, customers were disappointed. “So many people preferred the old tortillas,” he says. “I don’t know why people don’t like nixtamal, the real tortilla.”

In 2011, Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman (known professionally as AQ) opened Alma, which should have been a game-changer for Dallas’s Mexican cuisine. The restaurant showcased the chef’s vision of contemporary Mexican gastronomy using traditional nixtamal tortillas. Unfortunately, customers weren’t receptive, and Alma closed eight months after opening. In 2018, she partnered with restaurateur Monica Greene to open Cedars Socíal as a modern Mexican restaurant. The foundation of the restaurant was a line of infused tortillas used for her tacos de Tacha, christened after AQ’s childhood nickname. Instead of using nixtamalized corn mixed in with house-made fruit pastes and chocolate powder, she used Nixtamasa, a preservative-free masa harina sold by Gruma. AQ left six months after Cedars Socíal opened to take over the kitchen at tony Mexican restaurant José, also in Dallas, where again she used Nixtamasa. Then, in 2021, she decided to test nixtamal on José customers using a countertop molino manufactured by Masienda, the first major purveyor of non-GMO heirloom Mexican corn to restaurants in the United States. The tortillas were a hit.

Masienda, established in 2014, is a leader in masa’s “third wave,” so called by the Los Angeles–based company’s founder, Jorge Gaviria. In his recent book, Masa: Techniques, Recipes, and Reflections on a Timeless Staple, Gaviria defines the third wave of masa as driven by intentional awareness of the corn ecosystem, the need for a nutritious product, and giving masa and the tortilla their due respect. (The first wave occurred in the early twentieth century and the second wave was post–World War II.) With third-wave principles in mind, Gaviria has expanded his line to sell tortillas and kitchen appliances such as comales, tortilla presses, and countertop molinos that allow home cooks to grind their own nixtamalized corn. The company has a distribution center in the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, giving Masienda a strong foothold in Texas, not to mention a closer connection to clients like Molino Olōyō, which also uses the company’s molinito.

Another Masienda client is Andrés M. Garza. The Rio Grande Valley–raised tortillero-molinero founded Neighborhood Molino in McAllen after graduating from University of Texas at Austin, where he studied culinary anthropology and cooked in Japanese and Mexican restaurants, including Nixta Taqueria. Garza’s love of nixtamalization was cemented during his time at Nixta.

Unfortunately, Neighborhood Molino wasn’t sustainable, so he closed it and returned to Austin in February 2022 to be the director of masa development and fermentation at Nixta. The taqueria has been nixtamalizing corn for tortillas since it opened in 2019, but Garza’s hiring showed it was aiming to be not just a restaurant but a laboratory as well.

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Meet the Masa Masters of Texas (3)

Garza is probably the strongest connective tissue linking Texas’s molineros to the restaurants dedicated to nixtamalizing non-GMO Mexican heirloom corn. I learned of López and Molino Olōyō from Garza. His name comes up in conversations and interviews about masa with other taqueros and chefs. The unassuming 25-year-old is something of a wunderkind whose creativity and knowledge was lost on almost all the Rio Grande Valley. Before he left McAllen, he helped Ana Liz Pulido, owner of Ana Liz Taqueria in Mission, learn nixtamalization and get her own masa program running. When I visited the taqueria in February of this year, I tasted the future. The food was thoughtful, intentional, whimsical, and vulnerable in flour tortilla–loving South Texas.

Garza is also an ardent supporter of Mexico City–based Tamoa, an importer that sources surplus non-GMO heirloom corn from farmers across the country. Through their Laredo distribution center, owners Francisco Musi and Sofia Casarin provide some of the state’s best taqueros with top-quality corn from across Mexico. Tamoa was established in 2017 with the mission to service restaurants in foreign markets. Among its first Texas clients was El Naranjo in Austin. Co-owner and executive chef Iliana de la Vega has used Tamoa corn for several dishes, including her blue corn gorditas, since 2019. Other clients include Ana Liz Taqueria, Nixta Taqueria, Tatemó, Taconeta, and Elemi, which also uses Masienda. “We like the variety,” says Emiliano Marentes, Elemi’s executive chef and co-owner. He explains why his restaurant and other operations began employing nixtamalization. “We are trying to connect to our roots and share that with other Mexican Americans and Texas,” he says. “This is our heritage.”

Emmanuel Chavez, co-owner and executive chef of Tatemó, began his Houston restaurant as a molino in 2019. He would nixtamalize the corn, turn it into masa, and sell the masa raw or as tortillas. Last year, he moved Tatemó into a strip-mall space for weekly thirteen-seat prix fixe tasting menus, Sunday brunches, and collaborations with chefs and taqueros. “[Nixtamal] is probably the most important thing in making authentic Mexican cuisine,” he said. “When you speak on authenticity, it’s hard to really dial in what authentic Mexican cuisine is, because we have so many regions and subregions. Each region has their own versions of moles and tacos. If we’re talking about authenticity, it doesn’t get more authentic than nixtamal.”

Also based in Houston is Agropa, a company that has been supplying restaurants with corn and molinos for nixtamalization since 2008. Agropa owner José Leyva’s first customer was Hugo Ortega, whose namesake Houston restaurant, Hugo’s, opened in 2002. Ortega, in his trademark humility, has never boasted about using nixtamalized corn and making his own masa. Instead, he sees it as a necessity, regardless of the cost. “It’s how things are done,” he says. “Mexican food is priceless.”

But having the necessary ingredients and equipment doesn’t automatically lead to nixtamal success. “It’s not about the corn,” Leyva says. You can have the best corn in the world, but it doesn’t matter without a great nixtamal master. “They’re like winemakers. A great wine takes a great winemaker. Great corn takes a great nixtamal master. You have to make nixtamal a thousand times before you make a good tortilla,” he says. But Leyva sees the growth of and interest in nixtamal as a positive. “There are new chefs in the market that are opening their minds to [nixtamal],” he says.

With all these up-and-coming and high-profile taqueros, chefs, and molineros focusing on the craft of nixtamalized corn tortillas and other masa preparations, do we have a bona fide artisan movement? It certainly looks like it, especially with restaurants such as Elemi and Taconeta proudly displaying bags of corn in their dining rooms bolstered by stalwarts such as Hugo’s. The national spotlight on Texas tortillerias and nixtamal practitioners has also grown. But I don’t think the impact is mainstream yet. Many obstacles have been overcome in the effort to bring nixtamalized masa to the people, but many more hurdles remain to be surmounted, including the popular insistence that masa preparations must be cheap.

Stellar examples of tacos made with these kinds of tortillas at Nixta Taqueria, Elemi, and José are pricy; $6 to $10; $6; $17 to $19, respectively. Molino Olōyō’s preorder menu lists a half pound of Wagyu suadero with four tortillas for DIY tacos at a cool $24. The quality, the respect, and the craft make the prices justifiable. But most residents in my Mexican American enclave in Dallas, for example, can’t afford that. Even with the resources available to me, I’ve occasionally balked at prices. Nevertheless, nixtamalized masa preparations, especially tortillas, are essential to upholding tradition and providing the public with nutritious and delicious dishes. Everyone deserves a great tortilla.

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