Making Tortillas from Scratch at Taco Santo

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Growing up in the central Mexican town of Huaquechula, says Alejandro Bonilla Manjarrez, he was always embarrassed when his mother made him carry corn to the mill to be ground into masa for tortillas. When his friends caught him en route, he says, they teasingly called him la niña — the little girl.

Yet now that he’s head chef at Park Slope’s Taco Santo — a sister to the restaurant Palo Santo, owned by chef Jacques Gautier — making masa is a point of pride.

While most city taco shops buy their tortillas or their masa pre-made — or add water to an instant mix such as Maseca — this year-old taqueria grinds its own corn on a sturdy machine called the Nixtamatic. Manjarrez and Gautier sought it out on a taco research trip to Mexico, where they found that the tabletop molino was nearly as hard to find there as it is here. To bring one home, the chefs ended up having to drive to the Mexico City factory and knock on the door.

There are other good reasons taco makers take shortcuts, beyond lacking a Nixtamatic. Where dried corn is $1.50 per pound, says Gautier, the mix is 50 cents. It takes hours to grind the kernels, knead pounds of dough and then hand-press hundreds of tortillas. And that’s after preparing the corn with a soak overnight in hot water and mineral lime, which loosens the kernel’s tough hull and ultimately increases its nutritional value. (The Aztecs perfected that process, which is now known as “nixtamalization”; the name stems from their Nahuatl language.)

Finding a supply of dried corn isn’t easy, either. Currently Manjarrez and Gautier have a vendor who brings them red, blue and occasionally white heirloom varieties of the right type of field corn grown in Mexico.

The work is worth it to Gautier, not just because of the importance of masa to Mexican daily life — Manjarrez’s mother uses six pounds a day, for example — but for the tacos he makes with it.

“A taco is only as good as a tortilla,” he says, “and a tortilla is only as good as the masa.”

At Taco Santo, those tortillas are rough-hewn, dark, fragrant — almost nutty. If you wanted to eat them by their lonesome, you’d have precedent: Manjarrez says his mother used to make him a snack of hot tortillas topped with a little salt, lime, crema and macho, a roughly chopped salsa made from charred chiles.

She still does when he travels home, except now he’s proud to be in the kitchen, helping her cook.

Want to make Indian corn tacos yourself? You can! We’ve got the recipe — 5 easy steps — here.

Courtney MacGinley

A freelance writer, full-time mom and part-time Professor of Journalism at Suffolk County Community College, Courtney MacGinley is a firm believer that some of the best times are spent around the dinner table. Her work has focused on Long Island's culinary scene in the pages of Edible East End and Edible Long Island magazines for nearly a decade.

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