The tortillas at Maiz de la Vida food truck are out of this world. Here's why.
- Chef Julio Hernandez makes masa out of heirloom corn
- The chef's masa become incredible, aromatic tortillas
- The tradition of nixtamal is enjoying a revival that parallels the artisan bread movement
When a tortilla is ready to be turned on the griddle, it tells you. It rolls up just a bit on one side, just enough so that you can slide a finger under the edge and flip it.
"They speak to you," chef Julio Hernandez said. "Or at least to me."
Hernandez is the owner of Maiz de la Vida, a popular taco truck stationed outside Chopper tiki bar in East Nashville. He elevates his tacos, flautas and quesadillas with heirloom corn he nixtamalizes, mills and makes into masa himself.
The handmade nature of each tortilla is evident in the final product. For his wagyu shank-stuffed quesabirria tacos, for example, Hernandez selects low-starch corn, which lends crispness to the tortillas when they're stuffed and griddled. They won't wilt, even after they're dunked in rich bone broth consommé.
Nixtamal is nothing new, but rather an ancient Mesoamerican tradition for softening dried corn by cooking it in alkaline water before grinding it into masa. The process renders the hull easy to remove and makes the corn more digestible. A tortilla made this way just hits differently; it tastes and smells like toasted corn and bears more resemblance in flavor and chew to artisan bread than the mass-produced tortillas you buy in the grocery store.
And the tradition is enjoying a revival that parallels the artisan bread movement.
"I think of tortillas as bread as well," said Hernandez, who grew up in Tlaxcala, Mexico. The city's name comes from the Nahuatl word "tlaxcalli," an ancient word for tortillas, he said.
"I'm very proud to be from Tlaxcala," he said.
The 'maiz revolution'
Hernandez is part of a growing number of chefs drawing attention to what he calls the "maiz revolution." They're posting on Instagram pictures of their technicolor tortillas made with red, gold and blue corn, a tribute to Mexican tradition and a symbol of its rising prominence in the food culture of the United States.
"We are communicating with tortillas," Hernandez said. "Just like back in the day we would communicate with smoke signals, now we're communicating with tortilla signals."
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To supply his food truck, Hernandez labors away in his newly minted Maiz de la Vida tortilla shop in a Bordeaux strip mall. Now, he makes 9,000 tortillas per week at a rate of about 20 tortillas a minute. Sometimes he pauses to feed customers who wander in antojitos, literally “little cravings,” over fresh tortillas.
"That way they can try the tortilla," he said.
The tortilla shop was never intended to be a restaurant. It only had two chairs. But on the first day it opened, people lined up. They knew about Hernandez's food, and they wanted lunch.
"People started looking around, and they wanted to stay here after they saw the (corn) mill," Hernandez said. "So the first day we opened we had our one table full, people standing and people eating outside."
The next day, Hernandez put a small menu on the wall and placed a few more tables next to the bags of heirloom corn, each stamped with a family farm's name and the date it was harvested.
"One of the things I say is, if you open a pizza place but your smoked wings are the best, now you are the smoked wings place because that's what the community wants," he said.
Soon, a tortilla machine will help Hernandez make 3,000 tortillas per hour, which will free him up enough to open his first brick-and-mortar restaurant and mezcal bar in the South Gulch neighborhood. That restaurant will also be called Maiz de la Vida, or "corn is life."
A life intertwined with corn
Corn has always been part of Hernandez's life. His family grew, sold and bartered it. Hernandez and his brother would lose their rooms each harvest to three tons of dried corn where their beds should have been.
He pointed to a sign on the wall in his spare but cozy tortilla shop, which smells faintly like roasting corn: "Sin Maíz No Hay País."
"Without corn, there is no country," he translated. "Personally for me that means a lot because where we grew up I remember specifically all of our school supplies, clothing, our shoes, any school activity, my mom would pay for with the corn we harvested."
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Corn has continued to change the chef's life. Hernandez, who has worked for big-name chefs including Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, lost his Nashville-based cooking job during the onset of the pandemic and turned his wife's $500 stimulus check into a home business. He made tortillas all day in the garage, then sold them at the East Nashville Farmers Market and drove them to local restaurants in the back of his car.
He wasn't making enough money to justify the time, so when Chopper tiki bar owner Andy Mumma offered him a space to set up an Academy Sports griddle and a plastic table to sling tacos, he jumped at the opportunity. The response was such that Hernandez quickly earned a following. Soon, he had enough to buy a food truck. Two years later, he has a tortilla shop, 12 employees, and he's on the precipice of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant with Mumma.
"The first time I ate Julio’s food I instantly knew it was special and thought everyone needs to experience this," Mumma said.
The hands-on approach with maiz makes the tortillas special, he added, but Hernandez's deft hand in the kitchen adds an extra depth of flavor to his food.
"The first time we did a little pop-up with Julio at Chopper and we all got to eat some tacos and have a tropical drink together, it was such a lightbulb moment," he said. "Instantly we all knew it was the perfect pairing."
The story will continue at the brick-and-mortar restaurant next year, Mumma said. It will have a menu uniquely its own with sharable plates and a beverage program focused on agave spirits. The restaurant, in the Antiques Building at Paseo South Gulch, will have 80-100 seats. Lunch will be fast and casual but with the attention to detail Hernandez has become known for.
"There will be more finesse at night," Hernandez said. "It will be more of a sit-down dinner."
Though he could not reveal too many details, the menu will still focus on how central corn is to Mexican food and culture. Hernandez, pointing to the farm names on the outside of the bags of corn, emphasized that this isn't just any corn.
This heirloom corn Hernandez buys has flavor. It tastes like the old world. It also earns the farmers a fairer wage than cheaper commodity grain.
"So to me, I hope we're helping them," he said. "It's definitely growing their business and keeping their harvest alive."