Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa Gambles on Artisanal Corn Tortillas

la milpa rose tortilla dish

Tortilla Curtain

Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa is angling to be the largest nixtamalizing tortilla factory in the NY-Metro region.

It would be fair to ask yourself, what exactly is “nixtamalizing?”

Nixtamalization describes a 3,500-year-old Meso-American process of cooking and soaking dried corn in alkalized water to make it both workable as a dough and suitable for consumption. Historically, the alkalinity was provided by slaked lime—calcium hydroxide—which was gleaned from potash, itself made by leeching water through wood ash. The Aztecs used limestone-rich lake-bed sediment, but nowadays, the calcium hydroxide is made from burnt limestone or seashells. It’s sold at many Mexican-American markets as “cal” or “cal mexicana.” Cooking the corn in a cal solution softens the hard skins of the dried kernels and allows them to more freely absorb water, but the real benefits of nixtamalization are farther reaching than that. In history, the process of nixtamalization was key to maintaining the corn-reliant Meso-American diet. The technique frees up niacin bound in the corn to make it digestible to the human body and in turn more nutritious; it also supercharges the corn with calcium.

Of course, tortillas are nothing new to New York. We New Yorkers have been happily eating tortillas in this part of the country for decades, and many of those tortillas have been made by local factories. But as many California transplants are eager to point out, when it comes to delicious tortillas, New York trails far behind the West. In Western states, which have older and more established Mexican-American communities, fresh, nixtamal tortillas are relatively easy to find. In fact, elements of La Milpa de Rosa’s production equipment were sourced in California, Texas and Illinois. But, here in New York—excepting a tiny sliver of the local market served by small, artisanal purveyors—corn tortillas are made with Maseca, a convenience powder closer to a mix than a true culinary process. Using Maseca, one simply adds water to form masa, the dough from which tortillas are made—easy, but far from delicious. New York’s corn tortillas may be formed and cooked locally, but the vast majority come from a mix.

Nixtamal Takes Off

In the center of La Milpa de Rosa’s factory floor lie two steely 10- foot basins that bear a remarkable resemblance to giant bathtubs. This is where the dried corn will be cooked and soaked in “cal” solution. There’s also a washer that will remove most of the corn’s pericarp, or seed coat (some will remain in the masa and add texture to the finished tortillas). The star piece of machinery in the factory is a $30,000 grinder whose soul is actually quite primitive; it’s a lava stone mill used to crush the nixtamalized kernels into masa. After grinding, the masa will either be sold raw for home use or it will be transferred to a press and cooker that terminates in a long conveyor belt. Here, the hot tortillas will travel down the belt, cooling before being packaged for sale. Then, they’ll be wheeled off to the loading dock where Boston Kremes once reigned.

It’s a risk. La Milpa’s tortillas—which are made with organic, non- GMO corn—will cost more than the commonly available Maseca, or conventional, tortillas. The difference in price (which has yet to be set) will be about $1.25 more per one-pound bag of 32 tortillas. Despite the premium, La Milpa’s owners are gambling that customers will pay more for better quality: “Basically, the difference between a fresh, nixtamal tortilla and a Maseca tortilla is like the difference between a freshly baked baguette and a bag of Wonder Bread,” says owner Chris Vergara. “They’re softer, more pliable and aromatic. Fresh nixtamal tortillas have a warm, sweet aroma and a cleaner, more precise corn flavor. Maseca tortillas are a distant second to the real thing.”

The debut of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa is fortuitously timed. The factory’s owners, Vergara, Jason Steinberg and Kevin Landwehr, began seriously planning their nixtamalizing tortilleria early in the spring of 2014, a few months before the term “nixtamalization” became a culinary buzzword. In September 2014, the hallowed Danish chef Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s Noma, was seen nixtamalizing corn for an article in The New York Times about a taqueria that he’s planning to open. And in New York City, chefs Alex Stupak and Enrique Olvera both championed nixtamal at their trendy new restaurants, Empellón Al Pastor and Cosme. At Cosme, which debuted in September 2014, Mexico City transplant Chef Olvera showcases nixtamalization by subjecting carrots and parsnips to the technique. Given the recent hoopla, the ancient process of nixtamalization is positioned to join the pantheon of currently fetishized, new/old culinary techniques: fermenting, smoking, pickling and curing.

Shelf Unstable

The germinating idea of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa occurred over a meal. Vergara—who is the executive chef/owner of three Westchester restaurants (Meritage in Scarsdale, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson and Harper’s in Dobbs Ferry)—happened to come across some substandard tortillas. “My staff and I were eating a family meal of tacos at one of the restaurants. And I was talking about how the tortillas that we were eating weren’t that good—they were all tough and leathery, and they cracked and ripped,” recalls Vergara. “I was talking to one of my Mexican cooks and he was saying, ‘You need to get the tortillas that are made from real corn, the nixtamal ones.’”

“I said, still eating my taco, ‘Okay, then why don’t we just get those?’ That’s when he told me, ‘You can’t. No one makes them around here.’”

“As soon as we began to seriously talk about the factory, the process started to get a lot of heat in the press,” says Vergara. “You know, Enrique Olvera was coming to town with Cosme, and Alex Stupak was opening up Al Pastor. Rene Redzepi was running around the world trying to eat tacos. It kinda blew up.”

The distribution of fresh tortillas has inherent challenges. Once cooked, the fresh tortillas—just like any unpreserved bread—have a limited shelf life of only a couple of days. That’s why commercial tortillerias commonly extend the life of their bagged tortillas for weeks, if not months, with various preservatives and fungicides. A recent look at the ingredients listed on a randomly selected bag of locally made tortillas yielded not only corn but cellulose gum, potassium sorbate, methylparaben and propylparaben.

Given the short life of an all-natural tortilla, La Milpa de Rosa needs to find ready markets that can sell through a delivery within a short window. Says Vergara, “Freshness is paramount. We never looked into putting another tortilla on the market that wasn’t all natural. And I’d hate for someone to get one of our tortillas that had been sitting on a shelf for three days.”

Here lies the other risk to La Milpa’s market acceptance: Why buy fresh tortillas that grow stale within a couple of days when bags of preserved tortillas can last for much longer? Vergara counters, “There’s something wrong with a tortilla that can sit on a shelf for a month. Those tortillas completely lack the fundamental qualities of the fresh product.”

“With the factory,” he continues, “we’re trying to change the standard of tortillas in New York. Tortillas should be treated like fresh bread and not as a shelf-stable packaged good.”

“Initially, we imagined just doing it locally. I mean, the tortillas have to be delivered the day that they’re made, preferably hot. So we didn’t think much beyond wholesale to Mexican-American markets, restaurants and taquerias. Retail never really factored into our business plan because tortillas have a volatile shelf life: We never imagined them sitting on a rack in Stop & Shop for a week. So we needed to find places that can sell through the delivery of a product that wasn’t as good the next day.” He laughs, “But, if they ask, we’re not gonna say no to Whole Foods.”

The factory’s terminal conveyor belt has two options, long or short. “One is where we cool the tortillas and bag them, and those have a decent shelf life of a couple of days. But then there are tortillas that we tried in Chicago at a factory we visited that were made using a different formula. Those tortillas come off the line and then they’re wrapped in paper. We don’t cool them. And those have an even shorter shelf life—like, four to six hours. That distribution would be hyper- local. I could send them out to a place like this twice a day.”

New York’s corn tortillas may be formed and cooked locally, but the vast majority come from a mix.

Tortilla Connoisseurship

Vergara and I are eating al arabes and barbacoa tacos at Tacos Poblanos, a modest, universally beloved taqueria not far from Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa in Yonkers. He envisions selling his tortillas and masa here as well as in hundreds of small Mexican restaurants and markets all over Manhattan, the outer boroughs and in the Hudson Valley.

This plan relies on the connoisseurship of his target market, Mexican- American diners. “The beauty of what we’re doing is that most of the people who want this product know exactly what it is. They know why it’s different.” He continues, “The people in this neighborhood know that Maseca tortillas are only superficially like the product they grew up eating.”

Vergara admits, “Educating, say, the Whole Foods customer is going to present the real challenge.”

Given knowledgeable markets in New York City and the Hudson Valley, the owners of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa see the tortillas advertising themselves. “That’s the thing. We sell a hot tortilla to one place in the neighborhood, then everybody will want it. If you’re located in a Mexican-American neighborhood, you wouldn’t want to be the taqueria or bodega that doesn’t have hot tortillas. Because it’s that important. It’s like the French with baguettes or Italians with pasta.”

The company is investigating small, counter-style retail spaces that they will open under the Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa brand. The Yonkers factory would sell its masa to these retail spaces, which would then press and cook the tortillas all day in Mexican-American neighborhoods all over the NY-Metro region. Specifically, La Milpa’s owners are looking at spaces in the Bronx, Manhattan, New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, White Plains, Peekskill, Ossining, Mount Vernon and

Poughkeepsie. While Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa will start with organic, non-GMO corn grown in Illinois, culinary high flyers like Rene Redzepi and Enrique Olvera are proponents of Mexican heirloom corn varieties. “Sourcing the corn is an incredible obstacle for us, because corn is maligned in the United States for its effects on the environment.” Vergara continues, “But by the same token, there’s a ceiling above which we can’t price our product. … This has become a serious discussion about sustainability for us.”

“I think the imported, Mexican heirloom corns that Olvera is using are part of a really niche market—it’s one that feels important, and, certainly, it’s something that we want to get into down the line. But the demand for that kind of product is just not high. The cost difference is significant and would take us out of being sustainable. That type of corn is something we want to use and we want to support, but it’s going to be a challenge to work it into our product line.

There are definitely options out there [local, heirloom and imported corn], but if you price out your core demographic, then it becomes unsustainable on our end—and not beneficial to our customers.” That said, the owners of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa are considering smaller lines in boutique corn tortillas and masa. “Blue corn is what everyone on my staff is looking for, but the corn is prohibitively expensive for every day,” says Vergara. “We can do it, but this would be a special occasion tortilla. We could also just sell the blue corn masa.”

Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa will be selling its fresh masa by the pound for homemade tortillas, sopes, tamales, champurrado, atole and a variety of other Mexican foods and drinks. “Masa is a foundation for everything. It’s totally functional. And the nixtamal masa is head and shoulders above the mix-with-water stuff,” says Vergara. As far as he knows, and according to one Food Network source, one of the only other purveyors of fresh nixtamal masa in New York, Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens, has the capability of producing 10,000 tortillas per day. Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa’s production dwarfs that; it can produce up to 10,800 tortillas per hour.

The company structure of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa is unusual in many respects. Though Vergara and Jason Steinberg (who is Vergara’s co-owner at the Hastings restaurant, Saint George Bistro) came up with the majority of the investment, much of the remaining capital was sourced from staffers within their restaurants. “This has turned into a family operation,” Vergara explains. “It was crowdsourced from people who have worked for me for a really long time.

It started with us saying, ‘Let’s make something for the community.’ Then it evolved into, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, let’s make it an opportunity for everyone who has been loyal to us.’ So, instead of opening another restaurant and promoting everybody, we gave them an opportunity to invest. We have a dishwasher and a bartender investing in the factory … and one of my salad guys.”

“We spread the risk around enough that no one is going to get hurt if the whole thing goes south. And we gave them enough of an upside that, if it works, it could really turn into something good.”

Vergara believes that La Milpa de Rosa’s tortillas and masa will have mass market potential; after all, it’s an organic product that also happens to be naturally gluten free. Says Vergara, “It could be on your shopping list next to eggs and milk. But, initially, we thought about the families of the people we work with. It’s kinda criminal that the most basic part of their diet has only been available in Wonder Bread form.”

2070 NEW YORK 52

This story was originally published in March of 2015.
UPDATED: 7/21/2022