Growing up on a farm in Hidalgo, a central Mexican state north of Mexico City smattered with ruins of the Toltec Empire, mountains, and natural hot springs, Gustavo Romero’s earliest memories involve playing in the colorful Oaxacan heirloom corn that his family used to grow. “Corn has always been very close to me,” he says, and by extension so has the traditional, handmade tortillas that come from it. That’s exactly what Romero is bringing to the Twin Cities with Nixta, a Northeast Minneapolis tortilleria that just began offering family-style take-out dinners to the public this week.
Twice a week, Nixta offers a changing menu. A typical meal includes a couple of pounds of meat alongside rice, beans, a selection of salsas, and a healthy package of tortillas to be heated up at home for four people for $55. Those interested can sign up through the bottom of Nixta’s website to receive updates, and menus.
Romero envisions the storefront location eventually offering everything from tamales and empanadas to salsas and, of course, packs of tortillas.
Nixta gets its name from nixtamalization, the soaking process that Romero uses to craft his Mexican tortillas, something he struggled to find when he came to the U.S. through Arizona as a 17-year old. “I have a memory of the first time I went to a Mexican restaurant in the States after not eating Mexican food for weeks,” he recalls. “I received my food and I was very disappointed. This isn’t what [Mexican food] is.”
While this is probably where the first seeds of what would grow into Nixta were planted, Romero’s path was a winding one that took him to Italy, Oakland, and more before calling Minneapolis home.
Despite growing up in a culture where the kitchen was the women’s domain—“We weren’t even allowed to help,” he says—Romero’s grandmothers were spirited and talented cooks who grew everything they ate, from corn to rabbits. “The happiness of the kitchen always attracted me. There was music and laughs and joy,” he says, something he found while washing dishes in Georgia as an undocumented immigrant. “It was the same as the kitchen in my hometown, the same vibes. It had the stress and the burns, but it was so similar.”
Eventually Romero went to culinary school where he studied under an Italian mentor and finished his education in Italy. “My mentor called my cooking fusion confusion because I was always trying to add Mexican [flair] to Italian food,” he says, laughing.
After spending 10 years as a Mexican food-loving Italian chef, Romero moved to Oakland to help with the masa program at Calavera, a Bay Area restaurant known for exactly that. “My love for corn kind of came back. I was able to buy corn from my home state,” he says, realizing that his calling was to save the rapidly disappearing heirloom corn of his childhood.
Despite the global explosion of Mexican food that has swept the world in recent years, “I think a lot of people don’t fully understand the culture [behind it] and forget the most important part of it”—the corn, he says. “People think white corn is the way it’s supposed to be because it’s uniform and pretty, [but that] started pushing other corns away... In Mexico, we have 59 registered types of corn and my hometown holds 40 of them.”
Another opportunity to dive deeper into corn with Kua, a Travail pop-up restaurant featuring insect dishes, is a major part of what brought Romero back to Minneapolis last year. “I wanted to bring the experience that I have working with corn to the Twin Cities—there’s nothing else like it.” Once Kua ran its course, Romero began hosting taco nights at Mercy’s basement speakeasy until COVID-19 hit. “It was either me finding another job or using the rest of the corn that I had with me,” Romero says, and he opted for the latter.
What started with Romero making tortillas for family, friends, and friends of friends while taking classes. His understanding of corn has blossomed over the last few months into the Northeast tortilleria that Nixta is today. Working with Fundación Tortilla, a reputable supplier who Romero knows is paying fair prices to Mexican farmers, he sees Nixta as “really going back to my roots and trying to help my community there while doing things here. This is the best way to do that.”
In addition to offering meal kits, Nixta hopes to supply local chefs and restaurants with tortillas designed to take their Mexican dishes to the next level both in taste and quality. “Good tortillas are a superfood. Good blue corn has antioxidants, calcium, and fiber,” he says, rebuking the idea that tortillas are as nutritionally empty as the flour version and adding that Minnesota is an ideal home for his love of masa.
“The first time I went to the State Fair, I saw the heirloom corn and I was so excited,” he recalls. He contacted the farmers but was dismayed to find out that they just grew it for show. “It has a lot to do with the modified seed being so successful.” Someday he hopes to find a way to help local growers make a living growing heirloom corns as he eventually expands Nixta.
“I want Nixta to grow and more people to have it,” he said. However, “I don’t want to be big if that means sacrificing the product.” Romero is looking into a Mexican company that is making a machine that could make his work easier and faster, but for the time being he continues to fry his hand-pressed tortillas on a flattop.
“The most important thing is that I want people to experience exactly that feeling of going back to Mexico when they eat this type of food,” he adds. Ultimately, “I just want to keep making stuff people haven’t seen.”