Tacombi, one of NYC’s favorite taco chains, places so much importance on serving the perfect tortilla, that they opened up their own tortilla factory called Vista Hermosa, in Piscataway, New Jersey. Here, workers make 100,000 corn tortillas and 30,000 flour tortillas every day for the restaurants, as well as independent grocers throughout the country.
The operation wasn’t always this large, though. In 2015, they started producing nixtamal tortillas solely for the taco restaurants. “Back then we were cooking maybe six, seven bags a week,” says Jason Debriere, owner of Vista Hermosa. “And now we’re cooking 72 bags a day.”
In order to begin the process of making corn tortilla and the nixtamal, they start with white grain, maize, water, calcium hydroxide, and heat. The process of making nixtamal, which will be ground into masa to make the tortillas, was developed thousands of years ago by the Mayans and the Aztecs.
“It’s pretty incredible that they were able to do this thousands of years ago and understand that kind of science and chemistry behind it,” says Debriere.
The corn that was steeped in water and calcium hydroxide is completely rinsed off and put into a mill with stones, which serve a vital role in making good masa. “What the stones really do is really emulsify the oils and the starches and the fat,” Debriere explains.
The result is an airy masa that then gets put into a mixer where some salt is put into it and water, as needed. The finished masa goes to a machine called the “sheeter,” which allows the team to “print” the tortillas. It pulls the masa and cuts out the tortillas to the desired size, which, for this team, is 14 centimeters. The cut tortillas roll onto an oven and get baked on what is basically a mechanized komal.
“I’ve watched the women in the markets in Mexico ... and how they place [the tortillas] on different hotspots on their komal,” Debriere says. “It’s the same concept, we’ve just mechanized it.”
The tortillas then go on a cooling conveyor belt, which is essential to prevent moisture and mold because these don’t have any preservatives or additives. Once off the cooling conveyor, they go to a counter-stacker machine which stacks the tortillas so they can be easily packaged and sent off to retail or food service.
But for Debriere, the process is never over: “I feel like I’m always going to be chasing the perfect tortilla.”
Update: May 13, 2022, 3:38 p.m.: This article has been updated.