There is a renaissance going in Houston right now in the form of reclaiming traditional means of food preparation. All too often in the quest for efficiency, traditional techniques and processes are abandoned for cheaper means of production. Additives are used to augment shelf life and at some point, after years of consumption, the public forgets what the products they are buying are supposed to taste like. One group who is fighting against this phenomenon is the Kitchen Coop, headed up by Veronica Albin, Professor of Spanish at Rice University. Their goal is simply to "rescue" recipes and help women by selling nixtamal tortillas, sopes, and home-ground arepas.
In her pamphlet, Albin points out that many "corn-based Mesoamerican recipes and techniques are quickly being lost because the preparation for many of these ancient dishes requires back breaking labor over a metate." A metate is a mortar of sorts, except instead of a bowl it is made up of a heavy pestle and a horizontal grinding surface. A person must lean over, grasp the pestal with both hands and work it back and forth to grind the corn into masa. Mole is made in a similar way by working the spices back and forth until a smooth texture is obtained. For this reason, dehydrated commercial masa dominates the market and real authentic nixtamal masa is very hard to find.
Albin observes that "there are so many women out there with great talents, who because they don't speak English are forced to clean houses and other such menial labor." One of these women is Julia Dominguez. "Julia was my housekeeper and she is such a talented cook. She shouldn't be cleaning houses." Alpin invested in a small commercial space; "it's something I could afford. Our kitchen is very simple; there is a six burner stove, an oven, a mill and a press." Her goal was for Julia's son to come over and they would use the kitchen to make a living. As it happens, Albin ended up meeting several women from Julia's church who were fabulous cooks and the goal then became getting, "more women to use the kitchen for free and helping them place the products; hopefully moles, other flat breads and such. It was an investment I could make, so I figured why not?"
One person who recognizes the importance of quality, artisanal products like the ones produced by Kitchen Coop is Boomtown Coffee owner Matthew Toomey. He opened Boomtown in March of 2012 after having had the opportunity of running Café Luz downtown. "I started Boomtown as basically a wholesale coffee provider, my retail front was Café Luz, and then I got some backing and got this place going. I'd always been in the coffee industry, more in the front end as a barista though. In the past three or four years, I learned how to source good coffee, I learned quality analysis, and of course learning how to roast the coffees was instrumental in my development."
As of right now, Toomey and Boomtown is the only business buying tortillas from Albin and the Kitchen Coop. Toomey recalls the first time he ever tried one, "I was at Café Luz, which is the retail front for the Kitchen Incubator. They would feature different chefs. One time they featured Julia Dominguez and she provided the tortillas, and Chef James Ashley from Barebowls Kitchen was in there making breakfast tacos with them. That was the first time I ever had one. So, it was still six, seven months before I had this place (Boomtown) but I remembered her, so looked her up and the rest is history. The general consensus is that these tortillas are really something special."
The nixtamal tortilla is served as the fried egg taco at Boomtown all week long from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and Toomey has plans to expand its use into different applications in the future. Albin is also selling her products at the Rice Village farmers market on Tuesdays. There diners can either pick up either tortillas or sopes, which look like little pan fried patties of masa and are used to hold any ingredients someone wants to top them with. Albin invites customers to enjoy "the flavors and aromas from the kitchens of Huehuemexihcayutl, the ancient Mexican culture whose sustenance was tlaolli (maize) in all its wonderful varietals that Boomtown Coffee and Kitchen Coop now bring to you." Try it, you will not be disappointed.
Try the tortillas at Boomtown Coffee [Thu N./Yelp]