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Kernel of Truth Organics, in Los Angeles, is one of several producers trying to get a better, traditionally made tortilla into supermarkets, restaurants and home kitchens.
— Tejal Rao - New York Times

Photos courtesy of Rozette Rago for the New York Times |

By Tejal Rao, New York Times

Oct. 7, 2019

LOS ANGELES — When Ricardo Ortega wants to convince someone of the unparalleled deliciousness of nixtamalized corn, he hands them a hot tortilla right off his clanking production line in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Late at night, as the ovens exhale the comforting smell of masa, a single, plain tortilla can be very persuasive: roughly textured, but dewy and tender, with a sweet, almost toasted flavor.

“We’re dealing with an uncompromised tortilla,” Mr. Ortega said. “It should have just three ingredients: corn, cal and water.”

The process of nixtamalization starts with heating and soaking dried corn with cal, or calcium hydroxide (also known as slaked lime). It involves time and labor. But the industrialization of tortillas that began in the 1980s and made them ubiquitous in supermarkets changed that, and put thousands of tortillerias out of business. Most store-bought tortillas are made from Maseca, a leading brand of corn flour, stabilized with gums and preservatives.

“Even my mom’s fridge is nothing but Guerrero,” said Mr. Ortega, referring to the household brand owned by Gruma, the largest tortilla manufacturer in the world.

Three nights a week, working in a small factory they began leasing last year, Mr. Ortega and his business partner, Ommar Ahmed, produce about 15,000 tortillas per evening the old-fashioned way. They call their business Kernel of Truth Organics, and along with a handful of regional producers, such as Three Sisters Nixtamal in Portland, Ore., and Tortilleria Nixtamal in New York, they are building on a movement to get traditionally made tortillas back into homes and restaurant kitchens.

In Mexico, small tortilla-makers have responded to a national drop in consumption, as well as quality, by devoting themselves to the craft, urging home cooks to prize the tortilla dough, or masa, made from nixtamal, and persuading more farmers to grow heirloom corn varieties.

In Los Angeles, producers such as La Princesita and Acapulco Mexicatessen sell traditional corn tortillas and bags of fresh masa directly to consumers, out of their small factories. Mr. Ortega and Mr. Ahmed wanted to do the same, but they also wanted to compete with the big supermarket brands.

“Going back to nixtamal is beautiful,” Mr. Ortega said. “But our main mission is to make these tortillas accessible to everybody.”

Mr. Ortega and Mr. Ahmed, both 33, started making tortillas in 2014 in a narrow kitchen space in Boyle Heights. Once they learned the basics, through trial and error, they courted local chefs with their fresh tortillas…