The third wave of masa is here – here are 3 people who are redefining the tortilla in KC
You can never tell the secrets of a tortilla.
I’m not referring to what this deceptively simple envelope carries between its folds: the al pastor licked with heat and pineapple or an incredibly tender cochinita pibil. I mean the hundred thousand mysteries wrapped, pressed and flattened into unleavened bread: the ancient process of turning grains into masa, the gods and goddesses of corn revered by the Aztecs, the perseverance of corn stalks that stretch ardently towards a scorching sun. It is so humble, this tortilla, but so deep.
In recent years, a new breed of cooks has emerged, and with them a resurrected idea of what a corn tortilla really is and what it can be. Meet Kansas City’s Third Wave Masa Evangelists.
Valentina Tacos sets up three tables under a tent in a parking lot. They don’t have much equipment – just a portable flat grill, two slow cookers and a small tortilla press. The menu is small, usually offering no more than five items, and it changes with each pop-up. One week at Brookside Farmer’s Market, characteristic is a rich mole amarillo con pollo (yellow mole with chicken). A Thursday at Casual Animal Brewing Co., the fragrant barbacoa leaves quickly. The recurring vegan option – candied potatoes with strips of fire-kissed nopal and hot salsa macha – might be the best choice you can make.
Each taco is a small gift, carefully assembled and finished with a touch of cilantro. But hand-pressed tortillas are the backbone of Tacos Valentina’s business.
“We really make masa the base of our product,” says Roger Avila, one of the three co-founders and partners of Tacos Valentina. (The others are chefs Kendra Valentine and Pablo Muñoz.) “We want to show people another side of Mexican cuisine.”
In 2017, Avila and Valentine moved from Dallas to Kansas City (where they met Muñoz). The plan was always to move on after a few years, to keep moving up in the industry – until the pandemic hit. Suddenly there was no time like the present to start their own business.
During the first Tacos Valentina pop-up in August 2021, the three partners prepared fresh tortillas with masa harina. The end product was good, but Valentine wanted something special, and that meant taking it a step further. They found a company called Masienda, which sources single-origin heirloom corn varieties grown by independent farmers in Mexico. They bought a molino (mill). And then they dug deep into the nixtamal.
Nixtamal is the word the Aztecs used to refer to corn that they had soaked in water and wood ash. This process would loosen the hull of the kernel, making the corn easier to grind and convert into masa. Today, nixtamal is usually made by fermenting corn in an alkaline solution of lime and water. And while Mexican mega-producer Maseca’s masa harina is made from nixtamalized corn, the difference is that once fermentation is complete, the masa is dehydrated and pulverized into a fine, dry powder.
“With masa harina, you still have a natural tortilla product,” Avila says, “but the only thing missing is when you dehydrate the nixtamal, some of the nutrition and flavor of the corn is lost, and this affects the flavor of the tortilla.
To make their masa, Tacos Valentina grinds the nixtamalized corn they bought from Masienda. (Masienda coined the phrase “third wave of masa” to indicate the growing interest in single-origin products and regenerative agriculture.) The process is quick, just thirteen hours before the masa is ready. Then the team gets to work on the menu.
“We taste the masa, and from there we decide what it would work best with,” says Avila. “Once we had access to different varieties of corn from different parts of Mexico, it opened a lot of doors for us.”
On each menu, Tacos Valentina clarifies which variety of corn was used and where it came from, and repeat customers learn to seek out the masa they prefer: EDMX’s red cónico produces an earthy, sweet masa that works well with the spices while Oaxacan bolita velatove is dense and nutty (Tacos Valentina uses this masa for tetelas, an Oaxacan street food similar to empanadas).
“There is a difference in appearance and taste from one masa to another, and it shows right away,” says Avila. “It’s a bit like the world of coffee where people prefer Brazilian or Ethiopian espresso. We help them with maize.
“There is no recipe for tortillas,” says Marissa Gencarelli. “There are ratios. It’s a process.
Marissa is the co-founder and co-owner of Kansas City’s Yoli Tortilleria, which specializes in stone-ground, non-GMO corn tortillas and Sonora-style flour tortillas. Since launching in 2017, Yoli has grown exponentially, processing up to 800 pounds of corn per day. In 2020, Marissa and her husband, Mark, opened a cafe and retail store in the Westside neighborhood. Today, Yoli is a nationally recognized name in the tortilla game.
When Marissa first developed the business plan, corn varieties and supply were carefully considered.
“We came up with a list of values, and one of them was sustainability,” says Marissa. “Do we know the farmer? Are we paying a fair price? Are shipping and gas emissions worth importing? »
The Yoli product had to match her values, she says, and for the business to grow, imported Mexican corn was not feasible. Marissa also couldn’t find a way to lease rural Missouri crops and grow exclusive corn. Eventually, she found a fourth-generation farming family in Illinois that grows non-GMO and organic varieties, and today most of Yoli’s corn supply comes from the Midwest. (Mexican heirloom varieties are sometimes introduced and used for limited-edition products.)
“Each maize we work with has a different purpose,” says Marissa. With over seventy-two varieties of maize commercially available, she is keeping her options open. “Quesabirria was just trendy, and these tacos need white and yellow corn, but maybe tomorrow the new trend will be something else.”
Last spring, Yoli acquired Art’s Mexican Food Products, a tortilleria and food wholesale company founded in 1961, based in KCK. basket. When the owner of Art’s approached Marissa with an offer to sell the business, she saw an opportunity. She says Art’s operations and products won’t change.
In addition to its signature featherweight tortillas, Art’s sells fresh nixtamalized masa. This is what Crystal Nieves used for tamales in her food truck, Tamaleonsince she started the business in 2020. (Before that, Nieves spent eleven years in Nara.)
“Art’s has a long history in Kansas City, and my mom has been getting masa from it since I can remember,” Nieves says. His mother was known for her tamales, and that was the inspiration for Nieves’ business. “It’s ground corn dough, not powder with water. We take this masa and add our own ingredients to taste it to our liking.
Nieves tamales are wonderful, sweet and steamy, but the most popular dishes in Tamaleon are tacos, especially birria. Nieves also relies on Art’s for his tortillas, but prefers their six-inch thick corn tortilla.
It’s hard to argue with Nieves when it comes to his birria. The beef is simmered for six hours in a heady broth of chili peppers – puya, guajillo, ancho – and tomato, and when the meat simmers in the pot, Nieves says it’s done. She picks off the accumulated red film and uses it to grease her tortillas – that’s how she crisps the outside. The final product is puffed up with fiery beef and gooey cheese. It’s under five bucks, and it’s just glorious.
“I’ve seen restaurants use double tortillas, and I feel like that’s too much,” she says. “You want a tortilla that’s going to give you a big bite but still hold up with the cheese and broth. Art’s tortillas are perfect.