Sometime earlier this year, I read a review of the Queens Dinner Club’s venture to the canteen at the Ganesh Temple of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing and, after being sorry that I’d missed the experience (although I will do my best to get there soon and enjoy the canteen myself), I thought that having a dinner club in Queens was a marvelous idea. The most diverse borough in NYC is an excellent place to dine around the world without going far from home. I joined their Facebook group and waited to see where they were going next. I could not make the dinners for one reason or another but then “A Taste of Mexico City via Nixtamal” was my chance. For less than $50, I could be in Mexico City. (Chopsticks + Marrow blog: Queens Dinner Club)
Nixtamal has three locations in Corona and they will be on the LES soon. We were at the second location that has a party room upstairs, which is where we would be eating. At the ground level was a big tortilla machine and a counter where the tortillas were sold. After checking in, we were shown the cash bar. We had a choice of beers, sangria, traditional margaritas, agua de Jamaica (which they called hibiscus water as to not confuse the Americans), or horchata (rice and milk). I had the traditional margarita and horchata and Peter had the hibiscus water.
I enjoyed the margarita. It was not as strong or as sweet as the margaritas I am usually served. The horchata tasted like a liquid rice pudding with nutmeg. I took a sip of the hibiscus and that was not sweet either.
Then we went downstairs to get an explanation of how they make the tortillas. Unfortunately the machine had broken just a day or two before and they were waiting for parts. So we were looking at a tortilla machine taken apart. I hope to stop by at their other location, which has a restaurant, and watch the tortilla machine in action. The one at this location is a double machine – most make single tortillas – which the machine at their original location does. While the one machine was broken, the other was working constantly to keep up with the orders. The double machine makes 3000 tortillas per hour for 3000 pounds per day. They sell wholesale and retail (one pound lasts a week for Americans and a day for the Mexicans). They also sell masa, which is a big seller for the holidays. Their corn is mostly sourced from Illinois with a little from Long Island and Mexico. All corn is non-GMO. (The hood is not seen on tortilla machines in Mexico. The NYC Department of Buildings and National Grid insisted on it because of escaping gases.) The machines came from Mexico in pieces – they were shipped wrapped in Saran Wrap.
Shauna Page, a former financial consultant, who explained the process is Native American. Her partner Fernando Ruiz was born in the US and is of Mexican heritage (Veracruz). She and her brother loved Mexican food as kids and their parents would indulge them. Little did she know that the restaurant they went to made tamales from fresh masa and she began her journey eating good Mexican food. Her partner was a fireman and supplemented his income as a bartender. He decided they should make tortillas. They found a storefront in Corona and installed the tortilla machine in the window. At the time, the neighborhood was mostly Italian and people thought it was a printing press. Page and Ruiz really did not know what they were doing and one day Pepe walked by, saw the machine, and came in. He said his brother has seven machines back in Mexico and did they need help. Pepe is now responsible for all the tortillas made by Nixtamal. They started making tamales because Page liked them. A guy who writes for Chowhound passed by and asked if they served tacos. One of the workers made the tacos that he made at home. Then they started serving pozole and soon they were a restaurant. As more people from Mexico and Central America moved into the neighborhood, their business grew. They then were featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and the business exploded. The menu comes from the food that the workers make in their home kitchens.
They supply restaurants in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, including Boqueria and Dos Toros Taqueria. They used to supply Blue Apron (the reason for buying the double machine) but then Blue Apron got so big that they did not know how to keep the tortillas fresh, so they parted ways. Since a lot of non-Mexican chefs do not know how to work with and keep fresh tortillas, Page teaches them. Some are not willing to learn and eventually stop buying from Nixtamal because the fresh tortillas do not keep like those with preservatives. There was a learning curve for Page and Ruiz on “nixtamalization” (Page said that is not a word but was one that she has heard used). For instance, they turned blue corn green because they did not use the right amount of calcium hydroxide. Organic corn does not work because it remains hard no matter how long you boil it with the calcium hydroxide.
According to Page, the Aztecs discovered the process when they would grind the corn against the limestones in the riverbeds. The combination of water and calcium hydroxide softened the corn. The Europeans brought the corn home but they do not have lime (no dinosaurs) and when a famine took place, they blamed the corn. In Europe corn is used to feed animals, not people. At Nixtamal, the corn is boiled in water at 200 degrees for one hour with calcium hydroxide added and then soaks overnight. Then it is rinsed, ground, and becomes masa. Coarsely ground masa is used for tamales and finely ground for tortillas. The machine presses the dough, it is cut into circles, and cooks along a conveyer belt.
After the Q&A, it was time to go back upstairs and eat. When we got back to our table there was guacamole and homemade tortilla chips. There was also salsa rojo and salsa verde on the table. Then came the ensalada elote (grilled corn, lettuce, mango, cucumber, queso fresco, and chipotle dressing), which was sweet and savory with a little bite.
The sopa de menudo (beef tripe soup) was not a hit with most of the people at our table. I loved the broth – it had enough of that gamey/offal taste to make it interesting but tripe has a weird texture. It was cut into chunks and there were garbanzo beans in the soup also.
Then each table stood up to get their tacos. We could see a woman warming the tortillas on a plancha and on the other side was a spit with the adobe marinated grilled pork. In between were bowls of pineapple, cilantro, and onion for the tacos al pastor and then next to the trays of slow steamed young goat were bowls of cilantro, onion, and jalapeño for the chivo tacos. Then there were trays of guajillo chili marinated rotisserie chicken with avocado salsa on the side. Also on the side were stacks of warm tortillas.
There was also rice and beans. I thought everything was delicious. All the ingredients were fresh. And the best part was the fresh tortilla – whether as part of a taco or plain. After I convinced Peter to try one plain, he exclaimed that it was a meal in itself and you did not need any fillings. He would not try the goat until I told him that the fixin’s made it worth trying. He agreed about the jalapeños, onions, and cilantro tasting good but he did not like the goat. I had second helpings of the two tacos, which was a mistake because then I could barely move. And there was still dessert to come.
The chef, Richard Eng, from Black Label Donuts made donuts inspired by Mexican flavors. Black Label Donuts are (usually) sold on Sundays inside Nippon Cha in Bayside, Queens. There are long lines and they sell out fast. Eng uses flavors from all over the world to create interesting donuts. For us, there was a donut filled with salted caramel and another made with unrefined brown sugar and filled with pineapple jam and rolled in coriander. Both were so surprising and so good. I am glad I got to try his donuts since it is unlikely that I will stand on line for them.
It was a fun night. Most people came with others they knew so there was no getting to know a stranger. Maybe next time I will go solo and see what happens.
By Carene Lydia Lopez