How New York City chefs are upgrading your Mexican food in a totally healthy way

The heirloom varieties make for a much more colorful tortilla experience. (Photo: Fonda)
Heirloom corn varieties make for a much more colorful tortilla experience. (Photo: Fonda)

Swapping one tiny ingredient on a giant restaurant menu might not seem like a big deal. But when that ingredient is corn, and you serve more than a million hand-made corn tortillas a year…yeah, it definitely is.

That’s why chef Roberto Santibañez is so excited about his latest announcement: all three locations of his homey New York City Mexican restaurant, Fonda, are now exclusively using heirloom corn imported from Mexico to make said tortillas—served as tacos, alongside guac, as enchiladas, and more.

Why the switch? First off, there’s the taste. “The flavor, just the flavor,” Santibañez gushes. Like many chefs, he was fed up with the bland, homogenous, GMO corn in the United States—90 percent of the ears grown here are genetically modified, and most are used for animal feed and ethanol (meaning that the flavor profile is not exactly a priority).

Heirloom corn also just happens to be good for people, the environment, and the economy, he says, making the switch a no-brainer. “It’s organic and non-GMO, plus it has nutrients that make it a real food, not just an empty carb,” says Santibañez. “And, of course, we want to support [the farmers].” 

Chef Roberto Santibanez’s Fonda locations in the East Village, Chelsea, and Park Slope are all featuring heirloom corn. (Photo: Fonda)

Those farmers are able to get their red and blue corn from the fields in Oaxaca and Atlacomulco to New York City kitchens because of a new company called Masienda, which counts farm-to-table luminary Dan Barber as an adviser. Since it started making Mexican heirloom corn available to chefs last fall, restaurants like Cosme, Betony, Semilla, and Empellón have all incorporated it into their menus.

“Masienda sources varieties that have been cultivated for hundreds of years for the express purpose of flavor and nutrition,” explains president and founding partner Jorge Gaviria. It’s all grown by farmers who emphasize healthy soil ecology (and not pesticides), because foods grown in rich, healthy soil are more nutrient-rich.

heirloom corn
A farmer showing off some of his heirloom corn in Mexico. (Photo: Masienda)

Like with anything, this kind of quality comes at a premium—Santibañez estimates that the bespoke corn is at least five times more expensive than its mass-produced American counterpart. His prices have gone up only slightly (for example, he’s charging $1.50 for extra tortillas when they used to be free), but he says it’s worth it. “The minute you taste them, you understand why we did it.”

I certainly did. Instead of the rubbery texture you’re used to (with the tortillas flaking and falling apart when you fold them), they’re soft and chewy—and you can actually taste a summery-sweet corn flavor. Suddenly, the tortilla is no longer just a vehicle for grilled fish and cilantro but can hold its own as a healthy, delicious part of the meal. —Lisa Elaine Held

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