Tortilleria Nixtamal's Fernando Ruiz on Expansion Plans, Great Food in Dirty Places, and Cooking in the Firehouse

The tortilla-making operation at Tortilleria Nixtamal
The tortilla-making operation at Tortilleria Nixtamal
AM-NY

When Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page opened Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, just about a year and a half ago, the place became an instant sensation. That's because they're the only known place in the city that makes fresh masa dough: They order dried white corn from a farm in Illinois that grows the grain specially for tortillas. Then they boil and soak it overnight in lime before grinding it into fresh masa for tortillas, or mixing it with lard and broth to make the coarser dough for tamales. All other tortillas made in our vicinity are made from the dried masa harina, or masa flour, to which you simply add water.

Nixtamal's specialties are full of nutty corn flavor. The shop serves them as fish tacos and, on the weekends, al pastor tacos, and sells the others retail and wholesale. Various tamales are also available at the small shop, as is homemade pozole and mole.

Ruiz and Page started with just one wholesale client, and now they're up to nine, including La Esquina, Dos Toros, La Lucha, and the Loading Dock.

We caught up with Ruiz about expansion plans, childhood memories of eating in Mexico, and firefighter cooking.

Check out the second part of the interview here.

I heard you were busy yesterday for Cinco de Mayo...

It was really good. We're out in Corona, so we're off the beaten track a bit, but we sell tortillas, and yesterday, everyone ordered almost double. It was a really good day. So what's new at Tortilleria Nixtamal?

...Do you know Café Spice? They're an Indian restaurant, but they make the majority of their money selling products to Whole Foods. They do everything by hand, their stuff is fresh and homemade, but they came up with a way to package it--it's airtight and they introduce hydrogen--that gives the product a 20-day shelf life. They're interested in launching a Mexican line for Whole Foods, and they've been running tests with our tamale dough. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to start going over how this might work, so I'm really excited about that.

So we're growing. We're in the process of putting in a second location--basically, Senor Tacombi [a taco truck from Dario Wolos Cantu and Aaron Sanchez] is opening up a taqueria in Soho. They also have one in Playa del Carmen. They use our products once in a while, and he's seen our success. Since he's not really interested in being in the tortilla business, he's going to give me part of his restaurant, so that I can open a tortilleria within the restaurant...

But it's not really a restaurant, it's going to be set up like a street in Mexico, with the taco truck parked inside the space, and tables set up like you were on the street...And I'll set up my tortilla machine. People will come for the show, just like they come to Corona. I think it's going to be a really big hit. It gives me a place to showcase our tortillas in a good location...

Where did you grow up?

I actually grew up in Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst. I was probably the only Mexican around in the '70s. But what was very important and a lot of fun was going back to Mexico, spending time there at least once a year. And for the first two years of my life, I lived in Mexico with my grandmother.

What are your food memories of those visits to Mexico?

I always wondered why the taqueria on the corner near my aunt's house that didn't have any refrigeration blew away any taco I had in New York. I never understood that...I'd go into the dirtiest areas in the mercado, and my aunt would be like: 'What are you doing?' And I'd get sick, not because it's dirty, really, but because your stomach isn't used to it. And sometimes I'd be throwing up all over the place, but I'd still rather go there. I'm not so into Wal-Mart and going to the mall. The dirtiest places have the best food.

And it wasn't even a question of having one taco, I'd sit down and have 14 of them. In Mexico, the tortillas are smaller. Here, they're so overstuffed you don't even know what kind of taco you're having. Not to mention a taco that is $5--that is insane! In Mexico, it's like American fast food. It doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

Sounds like your eating experiences in Mexico had a big impact on you.

Right. I would never, ever have Mexican food unless I was at home. And it's like: I'm in New York City at three in the morning, I can have anything I want, but not decent Mexican food?...It's the tortilla. I didn't realize what a difference it was.

  So are you still a firefighter?

Yeah, I think I'm the first Mexican firefighter in New York City!

Really?

I go sometimes for the [FDNY] Hispanic Society meetings...and there's always a bunch of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, but no Mexicans. But you know, I'm not sure, the department's been around for hundreds of years... How do you have time for both firefighting and the tortilleria?

That's the great thing about being a firefighter--you work 24-hour shifts that rotate. So I go in this Monday at eight and then I get off on Tuesday at eight. And I've basically worked half of my work week in one day. All firefighters work two days a week, which affords the luxury of having another job...

That's how I got into this, I was a bartender for 15 years, that was my food experience. I worked for Mario Batali at Babbo, for Suvir Saran...the Champagne Lounge for seven years. I also worked for Blue Ribbon. I still go there, I live in the neighborhood. Is it true that firefighters are good cooks?

Well, I eat very well in the firehouse...The reason people think that is because they see firefighters in supermarkets. Part of the shift is that we have to prepare a meal together. So we go out and shop for the meal, and cook, eat, and clean up together. There are guys who have been there for 15 or 20 years who get to know the neighborhood and where to buy what you want. Recipes get passed down. But we have to eat together. We're married to that truck. That's part of building the camaraderie. You put your life in your brothers' hands.

Did you anticipate that Tortilleria Nixtamal would be as popular as it is?

I was surprised, but my first customers were foodies, and my first customer put me on Chowhound. We cherish our food so much in New York, and I think I underestimated this. I'm not in a place where people walk by--And before this, I was a total Manhattan snob! I was like: 'Where do you want me to go, and what bridge do I need to go on?' So I was blown away that people travel out to us. And it's people who know the difference. I thought it was going to be more of a struggle to get people to know where I was. The internet has been great: Yelp, New York magazine....So I was very surprised but at the same time, not. We're in New York, it's not like: Let's go to Wendy's.

And the Mexican people in the neighborhood see that, and now I see them mingling with them [the other customers]. That's why my logo is the American flag--every ethnicity has its own flag [at their restaurants] and then those are the only kinds of people who go there. The Ecuadorian restaurant flies the Ecuadorian flag; the Italian restaurant flies the Italian flag. But we're all here, here in the states, so our logo is the American flag with corn and a chile.

And 'nixtamal' is the Indian word for 'masa,' so I knew that once Mexicans saw that, they would feel comfortable. I didn't want to throw them off, so I put the name that they could identify, but the flag to invite everyone to come...it's kind of like a social experiment.


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