Nixtamalization is a word that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but chef Gustavo Romero is doing his part to bring it into Twin Citians’ vernacular.
Nixtamalization is more than a culinary buzz word. It’s the process of soaking corn in a calcium-enriched bath to loosen its outer hull, to make it easier to grind and increase its nutritional value. The technology is ancient and the foundation of a quality tortilla recipe, which Romero has been developing for years.
Last month, the Mexico-born chef opened Nixta in northeast Minneapolis (1222 NE. 2nd St., nixtampls.com). It’s a takeout-only storefront — just a kitchen and what looks like an office’s front desk — where he makes and sells family-style meals, and soon will be selling bags of those labor-intensive tortillas.
Nixta is one of a new slate of Mexican eateries in the Twin Cities to have opened recently, with more coming in the next few months. There’s the new Casa Maria, which took over the former Al Vento space in south Minneapolis. Travail Kitchen & Amusements has opened the rooftop of its new Robbinsdale building as a Mexican-inspired cantina. Both Hamburguesas el Gordo and Prieto are opening new locations, in St. Paul and south Minneapolis, respectively. José Alarcon recently closed his northeast Minneapolis modern Mexican restaurant Popol Vuh, only to replace it with a casual Mexican bakery, Viv!R, next month. Ann Kim’s Sooki & Mimi is scheduled to open in Uptown, in the former Lucia’s space, later this year.
“Mexican food is trendy,” Romero said. And that’s not a bad thing, he added. “Back in the day, people wouldn’t try what we are doing now. I think we have a little more credibility. We’re trying to educate people in a way, and a lot of restaurants have opened doors for us.”
Romero credits cooking and travel shows for introducing Americans’ palates to more than a ground beef and shredded Cheddar taco.
“Look at Netflix,” he said. “There are like six programs that talk about Mexican food and how cool it is. A lot of people are going to Mexico. They eat the food and come back and want it.” What they’re tasting, he said, is Mexican cuisine’s “strength.”
The heart of every meal at Nixta is corn, an ingredient central to most Mexican cooking. It’s also central to Romero’s childhood in Hidalgo, outside Mexico City.
“I’ve been a huge fan of corn since I was growing up,” he said. “My family grew corn. And I don’t have a lot of memories of being a kid, but I do remember jumping in the corn kernels. That was kind of like our pool.”
Romero moved to the United States when he was 17 and worked in restaurants all over the country. He settled into Italian cooking, finishing culinary school in Italy. But Mexican flavors and ingredients kept calling him back.
“When I moved to the States, the Mexican food here, the tortillas, everything related to Mexican food wasn’t what I was used to,” Romero said. “I always felt like if I ever had the chance to show people what we actually eat in Mexico, then I would.”
He made the switch as a chef at Calavera, a Oaxacan-inspired Mexican restaurant in Oakland, Calif., where he began delving into the world of tortilla-making.
“I haven’t stopped since then,” he said. “The more I do and learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything about my cuisine. It’s so full of colors and flavors. That’s what I want to do the rest of my life.”
The ultimate realization, after launching that restaurant’s masa program? He could no longer eat tortillas made any way but his.
“It’s really hard for me to go to a store and buy a pack of tortillas,” he said. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
Now in the Twin Cities, Romero is spreading the nixtamalization gospel here. He was a guest chef last year at one of Travail’s string of pop-up restaurants in Minneapolis. Called Kua, the temporary restaurant celebrated the cuisine of Mexico City. Romero traveled to Mexico with the Travail team to curate the flavors and dishes they wanted to bring back to Minneapolis.
“His passion is to make perfect tortillas, but what’s great about it is he’s a chef, too,” said Travail co-owner Mike Brown. “He has an amazing palate, and he is very knowledgeable about all cuisines. His capacity is honestly limitless.”
After Kua, Romero took a gig in the kitchen at Mercy in downtown Minneapolis for Taco Tuesdays. But Mercy has been closed since March and Romero was left without a job.
He started cooking for family and friends, doing 10 meals at a time, then 20. Friends told more friends.
With his first baby on the way, necessity dictated his next move: a tortilleria of his own that he hopes will eventually grow into a small Mexican market with grab-and-go tortillas, tostadas, heirloom popcorn and a line of housemade salsas.
To start, he’s offering dinners two nights a week that can feed two to four people. The $60 gluten- and dairy-free meal comes cold and ready to heat, and is available to pre-order on Tock (exploretock.com/nixtampls). Romero and his team hope to add additional nights for pickup as Nixta grows.
The meal comes with a main protein that changes weekly — puerco pibil, barbacoa, chicken in Puya chile and peanut sauce — and includes rice, beans, slaw, salsa, and, of course, a dozen of Romero’s hearty tortillas, fragrant with maize.
The nixtamalization process takes about two days, and it’s easy for tortilla-makers to sidestep it by adding flour to soften corn’s edges. But that wouldn’t be up to Romero’s standards.
“We cook the corn in the afternoon, we let it soak all night for at least eight hours, and in the morning, we rinse it, we grind it, and we start pressing it,” he said. “You can’t mass-produce tortillas like this.”