Yesterday, we brought you Tortilleria Nixtamal co-owner Fernanda Ruiz’s thoughts on his expansion plans, childhood memories of eating in Mexico, and cooking in the firehouse. Ruiz owns the tortilleria with his girlfriend, Shauna Page. They offer the only New York tortillas made with fresh masa, which they process and grind from dried white corn. The shop sells the tortillas, and also serves tacos, mole, pozole, and tamales.
Today, the firefighter/tortilla-maker talks common misconceptions about Mexican food, neighborhood diplomacy, an elusive liquor he’d like to be able to make, and the travails of delivering tortillas in a convertible.
What’s the reaction from neighbors to Tortilleria Nixtamal been like?
I wanted to make a tortilleria for the local community, for Mexicans [in Corona] because I didn’t think Americans were going to be the ones to buy. So my target customers were out in Corona…I’ve tried to keep it all in the community. My meat, I buy from the local butcher…I try to keep it all in the neighborhood so we can help each other…
At first, some in the [wider Corona] community were a little hesitant. I had a little old Italian lady who thought I was going to be bringing in a Mexican restaurant like the ones under the 7 trains, with a bar and $2 dances with the waitresses. She asked: ‘What kind of place are you opening?’ I said, ‘A tortilleria, a Mexican restaurant.’ And she said something to the extent of, well, she’d been here 30 years and I better be careful what kind of element I was bringing into the neighborhood.
My Brooklyn was about to come out — my girlfriend had to hold me back from saying what I wanted to say!
You know Mama’s [Leo’s], the latticini? Well, my girlfriend came up with the Italian tamale, made with Italian sausage and peppers–it turned out great, I love it. And we’re around the corner from this store, so I thought: Why don’t we buy the mozzarella from Mama’s? So my girlfriend’s over there buying the mozzarella, and they asked her why she was buying this. She told them she was going to put it in tamales, and they said: ‘Why don’t you keep Italian and Mexican food separate.’ I would have flipped out! I wouldn’t have been able to take it! I don’t even need her mozzarella! I was just trying to include her! She owns like four restaurants and has a stand at Citi Field, I’m no threat to her. I just said that’s the last day I buy anything in that store.
But the neighborhood reaction has generally been really, really good…I’ve been there two years and I feel a part of the community in a way that I haven’t in 17 years living in Soho…
What’s the worst mistake you’ve made since opening?
…I had an opportunity to buy the building…If I had the mortgage, it would be equal to the $3,000 I’m paying in rent, if I include the rental from above, which is $1500. So when you look at it that way, I kind of kick myself.
That and the car I bought before [opening the tortilleria]. I look absolutely ridiculous delivering tortillas in a convertible.
Is it hard to have a working relationship with your partner, your girlfriend Shauna Page? How do you divvy up the labor?
Everyone says that, and of course, sometimes you need a break, not from each other, but…we seem to make it work. And I actually sleep in a different home twice a week [the firehouse], so it’s not like we’re on top of each other all the time.
We have different responsibilities. We’re such opposites when it comes to business that it’s perfect. I want to go out and spend, spend, spend, and she’s controlling the money. It’s a working relationship that really works. I think the store is fortunate to have someone of her caliber. She can do our taxes in one hour and be scrubbing the basement floor the next, taking orders the next–our customers say, ‘Wow, your waitress is American?’ She’s learned to speak Spanish. She’s a jack-of-all-trades. She’s amazing. I’m even more fortunate than the store, and I couldn’t have done this without her…
I’m kind of the face of the store, but I don’t take all the credit. It’s me, my uncle, and Shauna. I’m just the one in charge of doing the show.
What’s an underappreciated ingredient that you like?
Well, I mean, most white corn is actually classified feed grade, for cows. It’s an ingredient that gets a bad rap. Americans prefer the yellow corn because it’s sweeter.
What’s the most common misconception about Mexican food?
Probably how spicy it is–people think, oh, it’s Mexican, it’s going to burn you. I don’t even eat that spicy. Some people put hot sauce on everything. But Mexican food isn’t served that way–in Mexico the salsa is on the side…
Besides fresh masa, which you now supply, is there another Mexican ingredient that you wish was available in New York, but isn’t?
There is something that I want to try to make that’s very traditional–pulque. It’s what the Aztecs drank. But you have to ferment the stuff inside the maguey plant…so basically what I’m missing is the maguey plant…They sell it [pulque] canned, but I want to be able to make the fresh stuff.