Oro by Nixta’s chochoyotes aren’t the typical golden dumplings you’d find in a bowl of tesmole de pollo or a Oaxacan black bean soup. They’re purple, made with a mash of purple Peruvian potatoes and blue corn masa — a cónico azul corn from Jocotitlán, in the State of Mexico. Chef Gustavo Romero usually makes the dough using a mixer, but today he and his mother, Teresa Veytia Avila, are doing it by hand, and the violet and slate colors blend to a brooding twilight shade. When the chochoyotes are fried, Romero says, the starches pull to the exterior, creating a craggy shell. They’re served in a pool of earthy salsa de venas.
Chochoyotes are one of the many masa dishes that chefs Kate and Gustavo Romero added to their menu when they expanded Nixta, their Northeast Minneapolis tortilleria and takeout operation, into Oro, a full-service restaurant, this summer. They do about 80 to 90 orders of chochoyotes a week. There are empanada-like molotes on the menu, too, and stout gorditas stuffed with chicharron and avocado salsa. There’s a blue corn tamale as big as a brick, stuffed with wild boar and crowned with a bright mole de frutas that tames the gamey meat. There’s a tlayuda — that crunchy Oaxacan staple served widely on the streets of LA — broad as a sun hat, loaded with beans, beef salpicon, and tatemada salsa. “A lot of these dishes are the stuff that you’d eat at any mercado back home,” says Gustavo. “They’re things that I ate my whole childhood.”
And, of course, they’re all made from heirloom corn masa. It’s not just the ample Mexican menu that makes Oro one of Minnesota’s most significant new restaurants of recent years — it’s what the Romeros do with corn, that luminous crop ensnared in a net of transnational trade, politics, and tradition. When Nixta launched in 2020, it was at the head of a wave of heirloom corn dishes hitting Twin Cities restaurant menus: Sooki & Mimi’s mushroom birria tacos; Owamni’s blue corn mush; Petite León’s heirloom hominy pozole. At Oro, the Romeros have extended their mission — helping preserve Mexico’s 59 remaining heirloom corn varieties — beyond the tortilla, to a whole roster of masa-centric dishes.
Nixta has always been an educational enterprise: The Romeros are half chefs, half storytellers. At Oro, Gustavo often runs food, bestowing tables with chile-dusted esquites and staying to chat with diners about Nixta’s mission. “We serve 600 people a week, and my hope is that I get one a week,” says Gustavo. “And if I can open for a year, or 10 years, then the change happens.” To anyone who’s been paying attention to Nixta’s work, the story is familiar: Corn, first domesticated in Mexico almost 8,700 years ago, is inextricable from the country’s identity, history, and heritage. Heirloom corn varieties — passed down from ancient farmers to the present, carefully adapted to different climates and soils, their kernels a rainbow of blue-black and strawberry-rose and yellow-gold — are threatened by the industrial white corn that dominates Mexico’s market. (Not to mention cheap GMO corn imports from the U.S., currently the subject of an escalating NAFTA trade dispute.)
Nixta’s goal, then, is to help create a market for heirloom corn varieties. And it seems to be working. The heirloom corn renaissance of the past several years — driven by farmers, activists, chefs, tortillerias, and companies like Masienda and Tamoa — have indeed increased demand, raised prices, and made heirloom corn a more profitable crop for small farmers.
Still, the budding market faces certain challenges. Maseca — the instant masa harina produced by Mexican multinational Gruma, which also owns Mission and Guerrero tortilla brands — is significantly cheaper than heirloom corn masa. (The Mexican government subsidized Maseca with millions of dollars in the ’90s, fueling its market takeover.) The Romeros strive to make their food as accessible as possible, but Kate puts the price difference in a larger context. “We should all be striving to treat tortillas like we treat bread,” she says. “Bread prices have gone up over the years, and we’re now all accustomed to bougie, fancy bakeries. The point that Gusto always makes is that people are still looking at Mexican food like they kind of look at the people, in this country — as cheap. Culturally, it’s like, of course we’re going to pay more for a baguette.”
Plus, cheaper tortillas have unseen costs. Industrial corn is high-yield and high-input, meaning it requires large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that degrade ecosystems. Monocrops have seriously reduced agricultural biodiversity — and scientists are worried that’s a big problem in a rapidly changing climate. “I think that the conversation that we should have is, when we’re living in a world where everything is so expensive, how do you think these things are so cheap?” Gustavo says. “Somebody’s paying for it.”
And beyond aspects of taste (if Maseca is neutral and vaguely corny, heirloom masa runs the gamut from sweet to earthy to ferric), Oro’s corn is nixtamalized, a process of soaking the kernels in lime that helps humans digest and absorb their nutrients. It’s an ancient tradition: Mesoamericans invented nixtamalization 3,500 years ago. “If you want to understand culture and people, you have to look at what they eat,” says Gustavo. “And you have to understand that a lot of that was a necessity, especially with ethnic cuisines. Now we have the luxury to do this because we want to, but at one point, people had to do this because that was all they had.”
Take an inside look at the making of Oro’s chochoyotes with heirloom corn and purple Peruvian potatoes.