When chef Zack Wangeman delivers a taco to your table at Sobre Masa — a fantastic new restaurant, bakery, corner shop, and heirloom tortilleria in Bushwick — you might notice a leathery disc covering your order. It is tan. It is wrinkled. It looks like what would happen if someone shaved a catcher’s mitt into carpaccio. It is, in actuality, a layer of Oaxacan cheese burnished so intensely it does not appear edible. This is a costra, a relatively new and delicious member of the larger taco family, and I highly recommend you try one here at Sobre.
The dairy-rich treat rose to popularity in the early aughts, as journalist José R. Ralat explained in a 2019 Texas Monthly column, at a Mexico City spot called Costra, where cooks served griddled cheese tacos to late night revelers. That tasty style, famous for its frico-like crunch, eventually spread across the country and north to Texas. Some venues use gouda; others prefer manchego or other varieties, charring the cheese into a crisp lattice as it fuses with the tortilla.
Sobre Masa, the latest effort by the team behind the currently-closed Williamsburg restaurant of the same name, doesn’t want to overshadow its high-quality corn, so it takes a slightly different approach, loosely placing a thin slab of cheese atop a regular taco. The queso exhibits a crispness that yields to a hearty chew, as if it were a mozzarella stick that had been transformed into jerky. Beneath the curd lies a pile of browned pork, a few slabs of pineapple, and a tortilla. It’s almost as if you’re eating a very good Hawaiian pizza at this point, but then, all of a sudden, the earthy, agrarian flavor of the tortilla comes through with a clean punch. Yes, you might’ve ordered this dish for the cheese — because maybe you’ve never tried costra before — but the unexpected reality is that you leave exhilarated by the gorgeous complexities of the corn.
If queso is the indulgent omega at Sobre Masa — filling quesadilla-like gringas for stretchy cheese pulls — corn is the majestic alpha. Wife-and-husband team Diana and Zack Wangeman, both from Oaxaca, are keen on “getting tortillas into as many hands as possible,” Zack told Eater in October.
Fifty-five-pound bags of dried bolita kernels from Oaxaca — red, yellow, and blue — line a shelving system near the rear of the dining room, a dim, brick-lined space with a u-shaped bar. Wangeman can go through four of those giant bags every day. He nixtamalizes the corn, mills it in a factory room behind the cafe, kneads it, and turns it into masa for tortillas. These are destined for the dining room or any number of restaurant clients, which include Falansai, ABC Cocina, Colonia Verde, and La Loncheria. They are remarkable and ambrosial tortillas — something the city could use more of — served as part of a succinct dinner menu that’s all of five or six items, including rajas, chips, tacos, costras, gringas, and fajita-like alambres, most costing less than $10.
A good place to start is with the bistec taco ($6 each). It is a small, minimally adorned affair, garnished with just onions and cilantro. It will survive a 40-minute subway ride back home, but if you’re comfortable dining out at the moment — I snuck in one night when the space was largely empty — they are even better when still warm. Wangeman takes grilled steak cut from the rib-eye and places a judicious portion atop a single wrapper. The tortilla, about the circumference of a latte mug, is no heavier than a baseball card. It makes you aware of its presence with a certain toastiness, then quickly gets out of the way, delivering the intense beefiness of the bistec in three or four bites.
Add a bit of Lebanese-style garlic toum, as white as yogurt, and listen to Shakira and the Gipsy Kings pump through the sound system as bartenders shake mezcal cocktails.
New York’s smartly-evolving Mexican scene has a lot to boast about at the moment. A large part of that evolution derives from the fact that fresh tortillas, once the Achilles heel of local Mexican fare, are rising in quality and availability. This is due in no small part to the ascendancy of ambitious restaurants producing their own superb product, sometimes from heirloom Mexican corn — regional varieties grown distinctly from genetically modified plants.
The machinery, space, and labor to produce these delicacies are expensive, but the good news is that restaurants — and patrons — can also purchase great tortillas these days from a small group of high-quality, local purveyors. Nixtamal in New Jersey, for example, sends its excellent product to the famed Taqueria Ramírez; there, you’ll encounter a firm tortilla and a straightforward flavor profile: a blast of pure, toasty, non-GMO corn from Illinois.
This is where Sobre Masa comes into play. Unlike smaller molinos and tortillerias, the Wangemans are trying to mimic a bit of the scale of a factory like Nixtamal — the team here can make about 1,100 tortillas an hour — while producing something that can approach the more nuanced terroir of a fancier establishment.
Swing by Cosme or Aldama, for example, and you’ll likely encounter some of the city’s most breathtakingly complex tacos. The tortillas there are often airy, ethereal, and volatile; they can dry up or disintegrate quickly, but before they do, they emit the type of momentary scents one might divine from a good truffle. Sobre Masa’s tortillas, I’ll argue, are a touch more rustic; they fall into a nice Goldilocks zone between the chicest Mexican restaurants and great neighborhood taquerias. To get the peak corn experience, buy a tortilla twelve-pack ($8) and heat them up at home, or try the alambre platter ($13), a one plate DIY-taco dinner with sauteed onions, peppers, cheese, and a protein or cauliflower. Most importantly, it comes with a pile of warm tortillas.
Before you start scooping up everything, pick up a tortilla, press it to your nose like an unfolded handkerchief, and inhale. Flavors can change from visit to visit, but here’s what I found with the yellow tortillas: The perfume is excellent, albeit restrained. Imagine a sunbaked corn field in mid-August. This by itself would make for a good tortilla, but if you pay closer attention, a subtle funk sometimes appears, recalling smoked hay or a leather car seat on a hot day. That extra layer of aroma isn’t as apparent or complex as at some of the city’s top Mexican spots, and maybe the tortillas aren’t as brilliantly light as elsewhere, but that’s okay because you don’t want them falling apart during takeout.
Now take a bite. The punch of maize can start off soft then gather force like a wave, though it never veers toward sweetness. The tortillas stand up to the heft of the alambre, particularly the chorizo-spiced cauliflower; the al pastor-like brassica packs no less depth than any of the animal proteins. Try garnishing it all with an order of chile rajas ($4) to add a bit of needed acid and heat. Then repeat this whole process with the remaining tortillas.
For the gringa, Wangeman uses a starchy corn variety called cacahuazintle, which holds up even better during a long train ride home — and a 10 minute reheating in the oven. This larger tortilla packs a slightly stronger corn flavor, keeping pace with the rich cheese within.
Consider finishing off with the flan, cut with cream cheese for extra richness, or with mini conchas, priced at just just $4. Diana told me to warm them up for a few minutes at home, which I did the next morning. They were as airy and puffy as any fresh sweetbread around town, and packed the right amount of sugar, but still, as I ate them, I daydreamed of costras and corn.