104-05 47th Avenue
Corona, Queens, New York
Tuesday-Sunday, 11am - 8pm
Recent studies analyzing American bodies and the carbon prints of corn within them prove that U.S. citizens consume the most corn in the world. But the title of Corn People will hopefully always be reserved for the originals: the Mexicans & Native Americans—the first people who came into contact with the wild grain. It revolutionized their cuisine.
Have you ever had a tortilla made from scratch? "Made from scratch" can be an ambiguous concept. What I mean is: have you ever had a tortilla made directly from corn kernels. I'm not sure I had until I visited Tortilleria Nixtamal, a new restaurant and tortilla vendor in Corona, Queens, NYC. The crucial difference between these tortillas and the ones you will ordinarily taste in New York is that they are made with freshly produced masa, or corn dough. And what a difference it makes.
Producing fresh masa requires special corn refining equipment from Mexico that is unfortunately difficult to approve in the States. But the owner of Tortilleria Nixtamal, a Veracruz (Mexico) native named Fernando Ruiz, succeeded, and he is happy to be able to give back to the community in the form of fresh tortillas and tamales. And if the taste and texture of the tortilla isn't convincing enough—soft, light & fluffy—costumers can watch them as they are made by Cecilia in the window front. The food is intentionally affordable but the atmosphere is lofty, "the SoHo experience in Queens," as the owners describe. Floor-to-ceiling windows, whimsical yellow tables & benches—trendy indeed.
And then our coffee arrived. (see photo #2 to left) Festive mismatched mugs can only begin to describe Fernando and his girlfriend Shauna, who served us and apologized that the coffee was taking so long, as it was freshly pressed. Apologizing for freshly pressed coffee?! Only in America. Indeed, Tort Nix is like stepping into the atmosphere of a different country, one where only fresh ingredients are consumed and meals are long and leisurely; watching the tortillas being pressed by Cecilia while waiting for our food to arrive set a curious tone of warm summer days in the kitchen.
First came the tamales, one of each kind. Tamales are cooked in corn husks, which are then peeled off and discarded. Inside of the masa dough, the tamale is stuffed with filling. Tort Nix tamales are large and stuffed quite fully. Our favorites were the pleasantly spicy Chipotle and the flavorful Italiano Special—with Italian sausage and peppers, onion, and mozzarella, though the vegetarian Rajas was cheesy and delicious.
We also sampled Cecilia's Pozole Soup, which involves the nixtamal (dried corn treated with alkali) in soaked form. In the downstairs kitchen at Tort Nix is the machinery that refines the corn into nixtamal (the corn itself comes from Illinois). Most of it is used to create the masa for the tortillas and tamales, and some is soaked in a large vat for the Pozole. The steaming bowl of corn and chicken soup comes with onion, radish, cilantro, lettuce and lime on the side for garnish, plus two fried tortillas. It is a crisp and airy soup, full of flavor.
Fernando is still in the middle of renovations and plans to eventually expand the tortilleria into a taqueria with a more expansive menu, including outdoor seating. And I think I heard the words "tiki hut"?
More on the fish tacos later.
—Jamila Colozzi | March 2009