The tortilla is the foundation by which a taqueria is built: not just for assembling tacos, but for rolling flautas, frying into crispy mantles for tostadas, and sopping up stews. A better tortilla equals a better taqueria, which is why Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens puts fashioning a superior version at the forefront of their efforts. They are the only tortilleria in the city that soaks, grinds, and mixes dried corn into house made masa for their tortillas and tamales. Even in Los Angeles, this is a rarity.
Owners Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page have been rightly praised for rekindling the ancient nixtamalization process. They soak dried corn kernels in a lye solution overnight and grind the corn themselves before mixing it into a dough, a technique that most tortillerias circumvent by purchasing pre-ground cornmeal. The tortillas are sold by the stack and held warm in a steamy to-go case. Hot off the conveyor belt, they have a pristine quality unmatched by other locally produced tortillas, and a captivating, nutty, toasted corn flavor that is the foundation of Mexican cuisine. The space for service is charming, with metal benches, nice flatware, and a red and yellow motif that the Golden Arches should envy.
The tortillas and their process of manufacture are admirable in theory, but when eating at the taqueria they can sometimes be as thin and dry as a paper towel. They do fry well into golden crunchy chips to dip into a chunky guacamole ($6), or to spoon up a cactus salad ($5). The de-spined cactus paddles are roasted, sliced, and tossed with slivers of tomato, onion, oregano, and topped with queso fresco. Cactus, like okra, is a mucilaginous vegetable that leaks a slimy goo when cut or cooked; though the salad has nice flavors, the mucus-y strands that stretch from the fork to mouth are hard to swallow. The horchata ($2) is as sweet and smooth as the service.
It's refreshing to find tacos ($2.50-$3) where the meats taste like true expressions of themselves: barbacoa with a deep lamb-saturated funk; a tumble of steak cubes resonating with beefy flavor; and the carnitas, piggier than most. The tacos are served straightforward and individually wrapped, with sticks of pickled jalapenos on some, cilantro and onion on others. The salsas that accompany them, a tomato-based red and a roasted tomatillo green, are more bland than baby food.
Homemade masa is featured in their tamales ($3), moist packages of steaming corn enveloping shreds of chicken mole, pork verde, and in a nod to the neighborhood's lineage, Italian-style sausage and peppers. There are two sweet varieties: a simple fresh corn and a dyed-pink pineapple and raisin tamale, which weeps butter.
I did enjoy the delicate plate of rice and beans ($4). The long grains are stained a scarlet orange and eschew the usual frozen Bird's Eye vegetable mix for a tiny hand-cut dice of carrots, string beans, and peas, thoughtfully strewn throughout the rice.
Tortilleria Nixtamal104-05 47th Ave. Corona, NY 11368 (map)