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Meet Vegas’ king of fresh, handmade tortillas

Many Mexican restaurants in Las Vegas serve ready-to-wear corn tortillas, pulled straight from the package. Others send out semi-custom versions, made using purchased masa dough. Only a tiny handful offer couture tortillas, fashioned in house from imported heirloom corn that’s boiled, milled, formed into dough, pressed and griddled.

At Milpa, his restaurant on South Durango Drive, chef-owner DJ Flores has become one of the city’s leading champions and practitioners of this traditional method, shaping his masa into tortillas, tamales, tetelas (stuffed triangles), tostadas and more.

In 2016, while working a stage (an internship, pronounced stahj) at Quintonil, the Mexico City restaurant named among the world’s 50 best, the fresh blue corn tortillas served at staff meals delivered an epiphany, the chef said.

“I had never seen blue corn tortillas before. I tasted it. It blew my mind: the smell, the flavor, the color is beautiful. When I came back from my stage, I said, ‘I gotta bring this to Vegas.’”

Cut to Milpa’s launch in January 2021. “When I opened this place, a small restaurant, I wanted to grind it all myself. I just remembered the flavor of those tortillas. I thought, ‘If I can convey that to customers, have customers experience that as well, people will love it.’”

For colored corn, an ancient technique

Flores, 38, is a Vegas native. His resume includes stints at Strip standouts like Chica, Jaleo and Border Grill. Milpa takes its name from the term for Mexican cornfields also planted with squash and beans, the crops helping each other grow.

The chef sources 55-pound bags of red, yellow and blue dried corn, grown by small farmers in various regions of Mexico, each varietal contributing something distinctive to the masa. Blue cónico, for instance, makes excellent table tortillas. Yellow bolita, on the hand, works nicely for larger tortillas (or for hominy in pozole).

Flores boils the kernels in water and calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) in 30-gallon kettles, steeps everything overnight, then rinses the corn to remove some of the outer walls loosened by cooking. This process, called nixtamalization, dates to ancient Mesoamerica. Nixtamalization makes softened kernels easier to mill while also releasing nutrients and improving flavor.

How 500 tortillas a day are made

The other morning, Flores prepared a batch of masa. He soaked the stones for the molino, the corn mill, so they wouldn’t scorch the corn during grinding. He fed the nixtamalized corn with spritzes of water into the molino; it emerged in piles that looked and felt like thick pollen. Flores rolled the pollen into a small masa ball, testing for texture.

“It shouldn’t be too wet,” he said. “It shouldn’t leave anything on your skin. You have to be careful with the water.”

The masa (with salt) received a quick knead in the mixer. Significantly, the chef did not add corn flour to stretch the yield and make tortilla production cheaper, a departure from tradition commonly employed by Latin grocers, the chef said.

The kitchen team at Milpa forges about 60 pounds of masa each morning, enough for up to 500 tortillas per day for restaurant service and catering.

Don’t even talk about queso fundido

Tortillas are made fresh to order. Balls of masa are weighed to 38 grams, then flattened in a ceramic-coated press from Oaxaca. They hit the grill for 10 seconds, flip, cook about a minute more, then flip back until they begin to puff.

“That’s when you know it’s a perfect tortilla,” the chef said of the puff. “It smells like roasted corn.”

Milpa tortillas might report for duty in tacos with local Desert Bloom mushrooms, fresh jalapeños, avocado, red and green salsas, and a flurry of cilantro. The tortillas might deploy in a stack alongside cauliflower tinga or short rib barbacoa, or form two small quesadillas for kids.

Tetelas, a Oaxacan specialty, feature tortillas that are filled with black beans, or with mushrooms and squash, then folded into triangles and cooked on the griddle. Flores tops his tetelas with scrambled eggs and queso fresco, or with a sunnyside egg, shimeji mushrooms, and salsa macha that calls on mulato, ancho and pasilla chiles.

Flores’ dishes are recognizably Mexican, yes, but they’re also unlike standard-issue dishes in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. Flores has a light hand, and his food feels very modern.

“I like to use a lot of vegetables in my cooking,” the chef said. “I see where tastes are going. I try to eat healthy. Mexican cuisine should be highlighted as vegetables and grains, too. It shouldn’t be dumbed down as queso fundido.”

Room for more masa

Milpa almost didn’t make it through its first year, 2021.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should just do burritos,’” Flores said. “But you have to stay consistent and stay the road and put out quality product, and they will come.”

And they did. In 2022, business significantly improved, with revenue of about $500,000, the chef said, a more than respectable figure for a storefront with 26 seats, beer, wine and one cocktail.

Word has spread of Flores’ masa made the old way. He’s begun selling dough and tortillas to other restaurants. In 2023, he said he wants to find a larger space. Have masa, will grow.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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