Tortilleria Nixtamal's Fernando Ruiz on Expansion Plans, Great Food in Dirty Places, and Cooking in the Firehouse
When Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page opened Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, just about a year and a half ago, the place became an instant sensation. That's because they're the only known place in the city that makes fresh masa dough: They order dried white corn from a farm in Illinois that grows the grain specially for tortillas. Then they boil and soak it overnight in lime before grinding it into fresh masa for tortillas, or mixing it with lard and broth to make the coarser dough for tamales. All other tortillas made in our vicinity are made from the dried masa harina, or masa flour, to which you simply add water.
AM-NY The tortilla-making operation at Tortilleria Nixtamal
Nixtamal's specialties are full of nutty corn flavor. The shop serves them as fish tacos and, on the weekends, al pastor tacos, and sells the others retail and wholesale. Various tamales are also available at the small shop, as is homemade pozole and mole.
Ruiz and Page started with just one wholesale client, and now they're up to nine, including La Esquina, Dos Toros, La Lucha, and the Loading Dock.
We caught up with Ruiz about expansion plans, childhood memories of eating in Mexico, and firefighter cooking.
Check out the second part of the interview here.
I heard you were busy yesterday for Cinco de Mayo...
It was really good. We're out in Corona, so we're off the beaten track a bit, but we sell tortillas, and yesterday, everyone ordered almost double. It was a really good day.
So what's new at Tortilleria Nixtamal?
...Do you know Café Spice? They're an Indian restaurant, but they make the majority of their money selling products to Whole Foods. They do everything by hand, their stuff is fresh and homemade, but they came up with a way to package it--it's airtight and they introduce hydrogen--that gives the product a 20-day shelf life. They're interested in launching a Mexican line for Whole Foods, and they've been running tests with our tamale dough. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to start going over how this might work, so I'm really excited about that.
So we're growing. We're in the process of putting in a second location--basically, Senor Tacombi [a taco truck from Dario Wolos Cantu and Aaron Sanchez] is opening up a taqueria in Soho. They also have one in Playa del Carmen. They use our products once in a while, and he's seen our success. Since he's not really interested in being in the tortilla business, he's going to give me part of his restaurant, so that I can open a tortilleria within the restaurant...
But it's not really a restaurant, it's going to be set up like a street in Mexico, with the taco truck parked inside the space, and tables set up like you were on the street...And I'll set up my tortilla machine. People will come for the show, just like they come to Corona. I think it's going to be a really big hit. It gives me a place to showcase our tortillas in a good location...
Where did you grow up?
I actually grew up in Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst. I was probably the only Mexican around in the '70s. But what was very important and a lot of fun was going back to Mexico, spending time there at least once a year. And for the first two years of my life, I lived in Mexico with my grandmother.
What are your food memories of those visits to Mexico?
I always wondered why the taqueria on the corner near my aunt's house that didn't have any refrigeration blew away any taco I had in New York. I never understood that...I'd go into the dirtiest areas in the mercado, and my aunt would be like: 'What are you doing?' And I'd get sick, not because it's dirty, really, but because your stomach isn't used to it. And sometimes I'd be throwing up all over the place, but I'd still rather go there. I'm not so into Wal-Mart and going to the mall. The dirtiest places have the best food.
And it wasn't even a question of having one taco, I'd sit down and have 14 of them. In Mexico, the tortillas are smaller. Here, they're so overstuffed you don't even know what kind of taco you're having. Not to mention a taco that is $5--that is insane! In Mexico, it's like American fast food. It doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
Sounds like your eating experiences in Mexico had a big impact on you.
Right. I would never, ever have Mexican food unless I was at home. And it's like: I'm in New York City at three in the morning, I can have anything I want, but not decent Mexican food?...It's the tortilla. I didn't realize what a difference it was.