An ancient tradition reemerges: the story behind Nico’s nixtamal tacos

27January 2021

Nico’s Tacos are changing the way we think about tacos, one nixtamal tortilla at a time.

Nico’s Tacos, with locations in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood off Como Avenue and in Minneapolis’s Uptown, recently started featuring nixtamal tortillas and tamales by way of a labor-intensive process of making masa using prized native, heirloom corn from Mexico.

An ancient tradition reemerges: the story behind Nico’s nixtamal tacos
Alejandro Victoria’s Aunt Carmela is in her kitchen in Tlazazalca, making blue nixtamal on her “metate.” (Courtesy of Nico’s Tacos)

The ancient method in Mexico of processing maize corn kernels — beloved for rendering a soft dough as well as boosting flavor and nutritional value — is starting to gain steam in the United States. Heirloom corn had previously been difficult to source, and while that is changing, the nixtamalization process is a time-consuming one that includes soaking corn in limestone water for a period of time and wet grinding it into masa.

“In my state and our culture, the nixtamalization process is a sacred tradition. Right now it’s really difficult to find. But it started to take off again about two years ago. You’ll see it more in big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Mexico City,” said Chef Alejandro Victoria, who owns the restaurant with wife Jenna and nephews Andres and Isidro. ”People are bringing it back. We’re going to see this quite a bit coming up here.”

It’s still rare in the metro to find places sourcing corn in such a way and practicing the labor-intensive, ancient culinary technique, although a growing number are starting to feature products using nixtamalized corn. In addition to Nico’s Tacos, the product has been spotted at places such as Nixta tortilleria, which opened this past year in northeast Minneapolis and sells to local restaurants. Sooki & Mimi, the eatery from James Beard winner Ann Kim opening soon in Minneapolis’ Uptown, will also feature nixtamal.

An ancient tradition reemerges: the story behind Nico’s nixtamal tacos
Alejandro Victoria’s brother Sergio grows corn varieties on the family farm in Mexico. (Courtesy of Nico’s Tacos)

At Nico’s Tacos, the house-made nixtamal masa is now the base for tortillas served in dishes such as tacos and enchiladas. The restaurant’s tamales are also made with nixtamal masa.

Taste the tortillas here, and you’ll find a noticeably more nutty, earthy flavor and grainier, coarser texture than mainstream ones made with powdered masa. Nixtamal tortillas vary in color, depending on the type of kernels used.

For the Victoria family, offering this at the restaurant is also a personal journey.

When Alejandro’s father, a corn grower by trade, passed away three years ago, the family had an even stronger incentive to bring the tradition to their Twin Cities restaurants. For the past three years, they’ve been busy sourcing the corn, working the fields and learning from their elders how to perfect the art form.

An ancient tradition reemerges: the story behind Nico’s nixtamal tacos
Alejandro Victoria’s Aunt Soledad is in front of her tortilla house where she makes nixtamal every morning, in El Rancho Acumbaro. (Courtesy of Nico’s Tacos)

Corn for their restaurant is not only sourced from Mexico, but from the family’s home state of Michoacán. And one day, in addition to sourcing corn from the region, they hope to take it a step further. Their family has grown heirloom corn in the highlands of Michoacán, Mexico their whole life. Many continue to do so and the family is currently working to source corn from those farms.

“It’s my indigenous heritage,” Alejandro said. “This tradition is an important piece of our Mexican heritage, and something we have been working on to bring permanently to Nico’s for several years.”

Two locations:  2260 Como Ave., St. Paul; 651-450-8848 and 2516 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612-345-7688; nicostacobar.com

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