Masa in Miami
by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence
Steve Santana’s tortillas carry more than the weight of carnita filling. From Taquiza, his walk-up taco shop on South Beach, he’s bringing integrity, flavor, and a booming business model to South Florida. In step with the small-scale milling movement and the recent elevation of Mexican food in America, Santana is Miami’s first producer of house nixtamalized tortillas. They serve as the canvas for Taquiza’s tacos, as well as its primary revenue generator. Some of the city’s best chefs are buying Santana’s tortillas for $0.45 apiece, a price that accounts for the heirloom corn, labor, and intense corn flavor that are packed into each dish. Santana’s margins on the product are standard, but he’s earning enough to launch a commissary, grow the business, and prove that South Florida is ready for premium artisanal products.
- Santana buys bolita blue corn through his purveyors at Masienda, who travel to farms in Valles Centrales, a subtrobical clime in Oaxaca where bolita is native. “We’ve tried other corn, but bolita is nice to work with, the flavor is really cool, and the color is insane. And it kind of gave us a little trademark: we’re ‘the blue tortilla guys.’”
- He receives the corn in reclaimed, re-used sugar bags, about 1,500 pounds of responsibly sourced dry kernels at a time. Santana will grind through this in about a month.
- Santana and his team process the corn in 6 kilogram batches. Each batch is rinsed and picked over to remove debris, and nixtamalization begins. The corn is added to a deep hotel pan full of water and calcium hydroxide (scaled by 1 percent weight of corn), simmered for 5 minutes, and soaked for 8 to 12 hours.
- During nixtamalization, calcium hydroxide separates the corn germ from the pericap and sparks a host of chemical changes that intensify flavor, improve nutrition, and soften the corn. As opposed to standard cornmeal, nixtamalized corn forms a dough with just the addition of water.
- Santana feeds nixtamal through a San Luis 2.2 Mill, slowly adding water for his desired consistency.
- After grinding the corn, Santana vacuum seals it and transfers the bags to an ice bath, holding the masa in the refrigerator until it’s ready to be rolled out. “The corn gets warm in the grinder from friction. If you let blue corn get too warm, or set it aside and leave it on its own, it starts to ferment. The pH changes, and it turns bright pink.”
- To make the tortillas, a cook sends the masa through the tortilladora—a hand-crank tortilla press—and then griddles them on the flat-top.
- At last, the tortillas head to their final destinations—whether it’s down the road to Tom Colicchio’s Beachcraft, across Biscayne Bay to La Mar by Gastón Acurio, or just to the walk-up the window at Taquiza.