Zack Wangeman is doing the math. “I have the numbers here somewhere,” the Oaxacan chef promises, walking through his soon-to-open tortilleria in Bushwick. He pauses. Then thinks, quietly converting Spanish to English and kilos to pounds. “If we process 60 pounds of masa in an hour... and there’s about 19 tortillas in every pound of masa... We can make 1,100 tortillas an hour,” he concludes at last. As far as tortilla operations go, his is slower than most — today the average machine can churn out around 140 pounds of masa an hour, he explains — but in New York, it’s more than enough to get the city’s first heirloom tortilleria off the ground.
Wangeman’s tortilleria is located in a stretch of north Brooklyn that can appropriately be referred to as “masa mile.” Beginning last year, a new generation of restaurant owners has flocked to the area, opening businesses that put masa — the milled, Mexican corn dough used to make tortillas — in the spotlight. In Bed-Stuy, corner cafe For All Things Good has been milling its corn since opening last fall, with a second location planned for Williamsburg later this year. At Aldama, which debuted in the latter Brooklyn neighborhood this summer, the kitchen’s compact kitchen spits out red and blue tortillas to the tune of live DJ sets. Sobre Masa, Wangeman’s first restaurant in Williamsburg, opened a block away last fall.
Their primarily Latino owners have chosen to open in Brooklyn, mostly due to the lower cost of rent, and in the process, they have formed a tight-knit community spreading the masa gospel. This week they get a church.
From husband-and-wife team Zack and Diana Wangeman comes Sobre Masa Tortilleria, a taqueria and tortilla production facility at 52 Harrison Place, between Morgan and Knickerbocker avenues, set to open on October 19. The couple is calling their new venture a “micro tortilla factory,” and though the space technically contains three businesses in one, they say they have a single goal in mind: “Getting tortillas into as many hands as possible,” he says.
At Sobre Masa in Williamsburg, Wangeman made an impression for his thoughtfully prepared masa dishes — including Michoacán-style carnitas tacos served only on Sundays and tlacoyos slathered in a mole whose recipe comes from Diana’s mother. His Bushwick tortilleria, which also houses a backroom taqueria, is going for something decidedly simpler with a short menu of tacos and bar snacks.
There are three tacos on the Sobre Masa menu. Two are prepared over a flattop griddle: Bistec, a thin cut of short rib that’s short for “beef steak” in English, and the vegetarian cauliflower, which Wangeman marinates in a chorizo seasoning with adobo and pineapple vinegar. The final taco, al pastor, is trimmed from a twirling trompo in the restaurant’s kitchen without ever touching the grill, as is customary.
Those tacos can also be ordered in a variety of styles, including as a costra, blanketed in Oaxaca cheese that’s been crisped up on the griddle, and an alambre, a cousin of the fajita that’s served with tortillas on the side. Gringas, a late-night staple similar to the quesadilla, are traditionally made using flour tortillas, but Wangeman serves them here on a tortilla made from starchy cacahuazintle corn.
The space is anchored by a small but mighty tortilla operation where corn is nixtamalized, milled, kneaded into masa, and pressed into tortillas. Visible from a window in the shop, the “factory” doesn’t consist of much more than a corn mill and a tortilla press, but it’s enough to supply the taqueria and the handful of restaurants — ABC Cocina, Colonia Verde, and the soon-to-open Comodo, among others — where its tortillas are currently served.
In the back of the building, a 43-seat dining room and bar serves as a storage area for its stockpile of imported corn, which collectively weighs more than 10 tons. The tortilleria goes through three, 55-pound bags of kernels per day, according to Wangeman, and piled on pallets throughout the dining room, it appears there’s enough here to last at least another pandemic. The team eventually plans to sell coffee, conchas, packaged tortillas ($8 for a dozen), and other masa products from a small cafe at the front of the shop.
Sobre Masa isn’t the only tortilleria to open during the pandemic — Tortilleria La Malinche in Sunset Park and Tortilleria La Guadalupana in Corona come to mind — but it is the first to make its tortillas exclusively from imported, heirloom corn. The term refers to regional varieties of corn that have been preserved and grown separate from genetically-modified crops, mostly on small farms in Mexico, according to Wangeman.
By the pound, the kernels that power Sobre Masa can cost anywhere from two to five times more than the generic varieties that dominate the North American markets, but in recent years, more Mexican restaurant owners have chosen to invest in tradition. “There’s a massive community built around this one ingredient,” he says. “It’s been driving our culture for the last 8,000 years, and we wanted to be a part of it.”
Nationally, the masa revolution is taking off with help from companies like Masienda, based in Los Angeles, and Tamoa, in Mexico City, which is importing heirloom corn to kitchen in the United States. In New York City, upscale restaurants including Cosme and Claro have been using the grains to make make their tortillas for years, but only recently have they cropped up on the menus of more casual establishments, in most cases for under $10.
Sobre Masa Tortilleria, the latest in the masa movement, is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 5 p.m. to midnight. The cafe portion of the business will open in the coming weeks.