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DeRusha Eats: Nico's Tacos, Changing The Way We See Tortillas

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- There may be no more significant Mexican food than the tortilla. It's a flatbread, a vessel for other food, a wrap for a burrito, standing alone you can dip it. Versatile and ubiquitous, a Twin Cities chef and restaurant owner is trying to change your perception of the tortilla.

"The flavor from a wet grind, you just can't explain it until you have one," said Alejandro Victoria, owner and chef Nico's Tacos and Tortilla Bar in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since 2013, he's been serving classic recipes from his family and from his native Michoacán on Hennepin Avenue in the 612, and on Como in the 651.

"Our food is really high quality, very labor intensive," said Victoria. Over the last several years, he's tried to get people to see Mexican food as cuisine – not just cheap and from a can, but made with time and love and connection to culture.

"We were not paying attention to indigenous originality, and part of keeping history," he said.

For him, the biggest change came when he decided to change the way he made tortillas in both his restaurants. "The dry tortilla serves no justice for Mexican food. It was a way of cutting corners, getting to the end result sooner," he said. "It's not the real deal. It's corn flour, it's not a tortilla, it's not the real recipe. It's like instant flour as opposed to yeast culture to make a sourdough bread."

The real recipe uses a technique called "Nixtamalization," a technique gaining popularity in a handful of Twin Cities kitchens. Chef Gustavo Romero has an entire business called Nixta in Northeast Minneapolis, making Nixtamal tortillas and selling them directly and through co-ops and specialty stores in town. Chef Ann Kim is using the technique to make tortillas from heirloom corn for her restaurant Sooki & Mimi.

"This is exactly what you would have got in Mexico when the Aztecs are making tortillas," said Victoria.

Nixtamalization is a process where Heirloom corn grains from Mexico sit in a bath of water and limestone. The alkaline minerals break down the skin on the corn.

"As soon as you break down, you let it soak, the corn sucks the lime in the water, and after a day it's about 3 times the size," said Victoria. The nixtamalized corn goes into a Molino, which is a corn grinder, and out comes as masa.

It's a labor-intensive process, and has subtle variations in both of his restaurants. "They put lime in the water in St. Paul. For our restaurant here, our soaking process is shorter, our tortilla in St. Paul tastes different than our tortilla in Minneapolis where our soaking process is longer because the water has more lime in St. Paul," he said.

When the corn comes out of the Molino and is hand pressed before it goes on the griddle, it's a little wet. But the nixtamal process preserves all the nutrients in that corn.  It preserves flavor too, according to Victoria, connecting the vessel for almost all of Nico's food to the heart and soul of its origin.

"At my age now it means a lot, I want to be a part of keeping history, writing records and staying true to my culture," he said.

Nico's Tacos
2516 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
2260 Como Ave., St. Paul

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