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Gustavo Romero left home when he was 13 years old. But home never left him.
Tulancingo de Bravo, a couple of hours northeast of Mexico City, is a town where not much happens, the chef said. There are just a few factories, and the people who work in those factories come home every night to eat. Together. These shared meals hold a central role in their lives.
That same ethos helped give birth to Romero’s Nixta, a tortilleria and takeout restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis. While 2020 might not have seemed like the ideal time to open a restaurant (the chef’s own spouse/business partner called him insane), this business might have needed 2020 to come into existence. The spirit of Romero’s hometown has reminded him of connections between the U.S. and Mexico during this difficult year.
“The situation we are in is very familiar to me,” Romero said. “The struggle, the way the government treats its people. And Mexican food helps people to survive.”
As he greets eager customers, the chef fills up the doorframe of his storefront. His tatted-up forearms–including a detailed ear of corn–present an homage to his country and its cuisine. The sounds of a busy kitchen can be heard prominently when talking with the chef on the phone. (A chat with the food press is nice, but when you’re running a kitchen, there are more critical matters at hand.)
When people think they know something about Mexican food, Romero says they may often be overlooking an essential truth. The food that emerges from the home kitchen is the medicine, the key to the endurance of Mexican people and culture. And that’s what makes it irresistible the world over.
“Mexican food is kind of trendy and cool right now,” the chef lamented. “Everybody wants to cook Mexican food, but they don’t understand the history. I’ve always thought Mexican food was misrepresented in this country. They look at our food like they look at our people–as something cheap.”
And while the food of his birthplace might be enjoying a burst of popularity, Romero says many of those restaurants are missing what his tiny storefront seems to have captured, as it builds a cult status with foodies, transplants from Mexico, and neighbors alike.
They’re trying to be too much like restaurants, he says. At this moment in time, “Home cooking would be the better feeling for people.”
Everything Romero serves at Nixta reflects something that appears daily in the Mexican home, the chef said. Nixta prepares meals for two pickup days each week, offering things like deep moles, tamales, or barbacoa (the meltingly tender barbeque beef of his region).
One novel element of the restaurant’s business plan: Nixta basically prepares a single menu that shifts each week. These dinners are designed for families: You pick it up, heat it up at home, and enjoy a home-cooked dinner that you yourself did not have to home cook.
Crossing the border—and not going back
Though he’s cooking for home these days, Romero, 38, knows a thing or two about restaurants.
After leaving his small town, Romero eventually set out for Tijuana, and quickly talked his way into jobs at nightclubs. Mexico’s long, painful drug wars have marred the reputation of this famous border town. But it’s also known as an iconic cultural hub for food, music, and tourism. Romero worked as a DJ and then a server, but he always had an eye on the kitchen. It reminded him of home. All of the important action was in the kitchen.
In restaurants, the cooks had the music, the jokes, the camaraderie. But back home, he wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. For his grandmother and mother, cooking was serious business. “The animals were on the patio and we had them for dinner–they did the whole process,” Romero said. No children were needed underfoot.
Now, away from home, the kitchen proved irresistible.
But Tijuana was a dangerous place for young Romero, who was still just a teenager. In pre-9/11 America, it was possible for Mexican nationals to cross the border into San Diego for the day. One day Romero crossed over and decided not to return home.
He moved around the country–Arizona, Oregon, Georgia–working every restaurant position possible: dishwasher, line cook, pastry chef, banquet chef, sous chef.
Finally, under the mentorship of a St. Petersburg, Florida, restaurateur named Mario Maggi, Romero moved back to Mexico for almost a year to get his immigration status legalized. With that settled, he traveled to Florence, Italy, to learn traditional Italian cooking. And then, at Maggi’s insistence, he acquired classical training at a leading culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu.
Now he was ready for big-time cooking, and big time cooking he did. He ran an important San Francisco restaurant called Credo. (Its Julia Morgan Ballroom stood out as a wildly popular wedding venue.) Eventually, Romero moved to Miami and Chicago, where he continued to run serious kitchens.
Another fateful connection formed during this San Francisco stint: Romero began working with a sous chef and Minnesota native named Kate Kiernoziak. They spent 80 hour work weeks together in the kitchen, and then hung out during their rare down time. The pair went from best friends to married business partners (she’s now Kate Romero); more recently, they became parents to a lucky baby boy who is destined to a life of eating very, very well.
Over the years, Minnesota’s fine marriage stock has resulted in the net gain of some of our finest chefs. Kate, an accomplished chef in her own right, helped inspire the couple’s move to Minneapolis in 2018.
The Romeros are grateful for Nixta’s of-this-moment success. However, the chef points out that they were not intending to open a restaurant right here, right now. They didn’t have much of a choice. The chef’s job at Mercy Bar & Dining Room, a flashy restaurant inside the Le Méridien Chambers hotel, became a casualty of the COVID-19 crash.
Newly unemployed, Romero found his therapy in cooking “way too much” food at home, he said. Soon, the couple was giving food gifts to friends, which became food sales to friends, and then to friends of friends.
Out of necessity, they expanded into a small commercial kitchen space–which soon became Nixta.
Why order a Nixta tortilla? Nixtamalization, of course.
The restaurant sits amid an assembly of trendy Northeast food and drink businesses that includes the nationally lauded Young Joni, and the small craft brewery Dangerous Man. Though its footprint is hardly greater than that of a large area rug, you know you’ve entered a sanctified space at Nixta. The aromas alone could command a surcharge.
While the cooking springs from Romero’s childhood origins, it wasn’t necessarily the only choice for his first restaurant as owner. When he started working at Calavera, an upmarket and artful Mexican restaurant in Oakland, California, Romero needed to make an admission to himself. “I realized I didn’t know anything about Mexican cooking,” he said.
“First you have to make something right, and then you can refine it or whatever.”
For Romero, there was only one place to begin building that foundation: the tortilla.
“In Mexico, corn is super important. Mexican people call themselves ‘Sons of the Corn,’” he said.
Living in Mexico, Romero ate handmade tortillas every day of his childhood. As a result, the tortillas he found in U.S. supermarkets–mass-produced and shelf stable–were barely recognizable.
“He wanted to bring the good tortillas to the people of Minneapolis,” explained Kate.
To do that, Romero obviously had to start with the corn. And that involves nixtamalization: a process that cooks the corn in an alkaline solution to remove the hull, which also releases the kernel’s nutritional value. It’s an ancient process that has been lost to industrialization in the name of efficiency and speed—like so many aspects of U.S. food production. It’s also what makes a tortilla worth eating.
Nixtamalization has a fraught history in the U.S. When white settlers arrived in the southern United States, they adopted corn as a staple. But they skipped the important step of nixtamalization, explains Dr. Rachel V. Briggs, a foodways archaeologist, on her scholarly blog AllThingsHominy.com The result? The nutritional deficiency pellagra, and tens of thousands of deaths.
In Romero’s hands, the nixtamalization process brings four fundamental ingredients together: heirloom corn (sourced from family farms in Mexico), water, calcium hydroxide (the chemical compound lime), and time. The kitchen first cooks the corn in water with the lime. This mixture cools overnight. In the morning, Romero drains, rinses, grinds, and blends the corn with a bit of water until it comes together as a dough.
The chef is humble about the process: Every day, he says, is an opportunity to get better. But each day he’s also getting closer. Every corn shipment is a little different, yielding a slightly different tortilla. Still, Romero said, Nixta has already built a “huge following of Mexicans,” who report that this tortilla tastes just like the one they have back home.
Kate says anyone who has travelled to Mexico will recognize the flavor and fragrance of their tortilla. But she describes it to the layperson: “The first difference: You don’t have to double up so the guts of the taco won’t fall out. It has more elasticity so it holds up a lot better. And, it’s not dry.”
And this is an important point: There is no other place in the Twin Cities that produces nixtamalized corn tortillas. Plenty of Mexican customers already know the difference. But during a time when people cannot easily travel, the Romeros are offering snowbound Minnesotans a culinary tour of a favorite winter travel destination.
The Nixta team makes about 1,200 tortillas each production day for their own operation, in addition to fulfilling orders for a smattering of other restaurants, and for Eastside Coop, on Central Avenue, in Northeast.
Currently, an employee flips every single tortilla by hand to finish it on the griddle. Soon, a “big boy” machine will arrive, allowing the restaurant to scale up.
‘He’s not taking liberties with traditional Mexican food’
While the tortillas provide the foundation for Romero’s beloved Mexican cooking, he’s no less conscientious about everything else that comes out of his kitchen.
The two weekly pickup meals include that homestyle cooking: knee-buckling stews like mole poblano, puerco en chile pasilla, and even cochinita pibil—the signature barbeque of the Yucatan peninsula. Meals come with beans, rice, slaw or a vegetable, and of course a stack of Nixta’s painstakingly made tortillas. (Vegan and vegetarian options are always available.)
In addition to the two pickup meals, Nixta caters to the single people among us on Saturdays with tacos and brunch items like dressed-up avocado toast or egg and chorizo bolillos–a big sandwich on soft white bread.
Nixta regular and longtime Twin Cities chef Alex Roberts, proprietor of Alma, says he got hooked on Romero’s cooking after his first taste. “I realized he was cooking really traditional food,” Roberts said. “Not overly cheffy stuff. He’s a Mexican and he’s not taking liberties with Mexican traditional food.”
Like any important effort, this one was built by the larger community: countless friends, family, and neighbors who continuously support them. Romero wants to be sure he calls them out for those contributions. “It’s not just me,” he said.
Eventually, they hope to create a dine-in restaurant where food can be served with “the right temperature, the right texture, the right everything.” But Nixta is an ever-evolving education in its own right, an ongoing opportunity to reach for excellence, while preserving the true spirit and history of Mexican cuisine. Romero points out that he’s a member of the Mexican Corn Tortilla Foundation, a food-advocacy group “where they teach you everything there is to know about corn.”
These days, Romero feels he’s standing at a new precipice of Mexican chefdom: “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything.”