As the server sets down the bowl of fisherman’s stew at the new Handline in Sebastopol, the aroma of warm corn wafts up, mingling with the fragrance of savory white fish, cove mussels, clams and calamari swimming in rust-gold broth.
There is no corn in the soup. The hominy scent comes from the tortillas served alongside. Grilled to order just seconds ago, the pliant rounds are crafted from homemade masa, bringing much more authentic corn character than typical store-bought tortillas.
Every morning, Handline co-owner Natalie Goble starts the painstaking process of making the masa de maíz to serve with the eatery’s al pastor and fried cod tacos, poached local squid tostadas and California halibut ceviche.
“It’s actually a two-day process,” she explains, as the raw corn kernels need to be soaked, simmered, milled and kneaded into dough. “It’s much more work for us, but we really want the true corn flavor that comes from fresh.”
Just getting the corn takes some effort. Dent or field corn is better than sweet corn, since its larger kernels absorb more water and contain more starch.
Such labor intensity means that fresh masa is rare for restaurants, and most places rely on masa harina, a packaged, ground corn flour that needs only to be mixed with water. You can find handmade tortillas at the fast casual HomeMade Tortilla eatery in Santa Rosa, and Copita in Sausalito, among other places.
But as with Copita, few places grind kernels onsite. Copita uses nixtamal masa, which is made from scratch but is provided to the restaurant by a vendor.
The new Más Masa, which opened in November in Fairfax, also makes its own masa, hand-grinding organic, heirloom blue corn from Nebraska and corn from Masienda, a boutique company that partners with small farmers in Mexico.
Because the grinding process is loud, owners Will Eoff and Patrick Sheehy do their milling in the early mornings, before their restaurant opens.
Then there’s Tierra Vegetables’ farm stand in Santa Rosa, which sells local, dried corn and fresh hominy. Last year, owners Lee and Wayne James purchased a molina (grinder) to make fresh masa and tortillas from scratch. They sell tiny amounts of both out of the shop’s refrigerator case. The grinding and griddling is done in the store’s commercial kitchen in Windsor.
To really appreciate the edible art, however, it helps to see the true, heritage process in person. Restaurateur Karen Waikiki is largely credited with reviving the lost tradition locally, when she opened El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs six years ago. Each morning, staff feeds soaked organic corn into a specially made grinding machine to make their masa dough. Customers can view the action in the tiny, open kitchen.
Then, staff hand presses the dough and tosses it on a griddle, with the tortillas emerging golden, bubbly charred in spots and sporting that wonderful, irregular shape that guarantees these beauties didn’t come from a bag.
At Handline, the masa operation has its own private room for holding the 50-pound sacks of organic white corn sourced from Pleasant Grove Farms in Sacramento Valley. There’s a stainless steel soaking tub here, too, and the custom-made mill outfitted with two grinding stones. Guests can peer through the expansive windows and witness the operation.
First, Noble “nixtamalizes” the corn by bringing the whole kernels to nearly a boil with lime water. The slaked lime (commonly called cal) loosens the corn’s hulls, allowing nutrients to be better absorbed by the human body. The kernels soak overnight, until they are soft on their outer layer but firm enough that they can still be dented with a fingernail.