Aldo Góngora oversees corn’s daily journey from kernels to molinos to antojitos.
After a summer making tacos at Bumbershoot, Hempfest, and Bite of Seattle, Aldo Góngora’s taco business, Sazón, had a leftover box of commercial-grade tortillas. The package remained hunkered in his van until the next festival season. “When we opened it, the tortillas—after a year—were like brand- new,” he remembers.
That was 2018. It was also the moment when Góngora decided to get into corn.
It took a few years, but this vow has officially landed him at Pike Place Market, in a stall all but obscured from the cobblestone street by the nonstop queue of caffeinated faithful, waiting for an audience at the original Starbucks next door. But c’mon, any self-respecting local knows the kudzu of coffee actually began in a now-demolished building at 2000 Western Avenue. The real first on this stretch of Pike Place is the tortilleria and antojitos shop that Góngora opened here in November.
Maíz is tiny, in the manner of vintage Pike Place Market stalls, with just four counter stools. But its significance is huge—bold as the talavera tile Góngora drove up from Baja California, hand-painted squares that depict skeletons doing yoga, taking baths, texting LOLs, and riding motorcycles.
Góngora imports sacks of single-origin heirloom corn from small Mexican farms. His team boils those kernels with mineral lime, then cools them to soak overnight. They wash the results again and again, then grind it in a stone molino. This lengthy process—known as nixtamalizing—yields an earthy rainbow of masa, the dough that underpins Maíz’s just-the-facts menu of antojitos: sopes, huaraches, gorditas, tostadas, quesadillas, and so very many tacos.
Seattle’s obsession with bread is well-documented; you’re not a regular at certain bakeries or pizza places until you’re on a first-name basis with the kitchen’s pampered sourdough starter. Flour grown and milled in Washington has shifted from admirable outlier to our literal daily bread. Now a few local spots are pressing fresh masa into a similar chasm between sacks of quality corn and spine-tingling tortillas. More symbolically, Maíz is doing it in Pike Place Market, that Seattle institution built on the principle of looking your producer in the eye before you wander off with your snack or tulip bouquet.
Under the gaze of patient Starbucks pilgrims, Maíz’s cooks turn a hand-cranked press, transforming fistfuls of masa into tortillas in the front window. Most customers order tacos, currently fawn-colored rounds flecked with personality, soft with appealingly ragged, slightly crisp edges. Góngora knows a few things about tacos. Since his corn epiphany, Sazón has bloomed into two restaurants in Ballard and Queen Anne, amplifying Seattle’s breakfast game and sustaining us with deep-flavored tortas and classic tacos. (He runs Maíz with his wife, Angelica Martin; her sister is the third owner at Sazón.)
At Pike Place, Góngora favors guisado-style tacos. Those fresh-cranked tortillas get grilled, then filled with your choice of stewy braised meats. Every one of them scores, thanks to skills honed over at Sazón, not to mention Góngora’s culinary school stint in Ensenada. Chicken en mole unleashes richness and spice; the pollo verde delivers heat levels seldom achieved with chicken. Machaca adds crunchy peppers, bistec ranchero sets up Maíz’s taco toppings—shaved radish, sublime pickled onions, lots of cilantro—with the subtle force of a Mitch Hedberg punchline.
Góngora cheerfully admits Maíz is a learning curve that slowly unbends in front of customers every day. His staff is still discovering how long each corn needs to boil during nixtamal, and which ones work better for tamales versus gorditas.
Shortly after my first lunchtime visit, I dined at República down in Portland, a multicourse sonnet composed across centuries of Mexican tradition. Midway through the meal, the server delivered a tortilla of fused blue and white corn, harmonious in the way of a black-and-white cookie. But uniting these two types of corn in a single composition, she explained, was “like stitching together denim and silk.” Seattle’s own masa landscape might not reach these heights just yet, but giving corn the same consideration as wheat feels like a step toward righting an industrial wrong committed against one of our continent’s most compelling carbs.
In Seattle, restaurants that aim higher than the Sysco truck often get tortillas, or masa, from La Mexicana, a friendly decades-old baking operation with a trim production facility in Renton. A scant few spots, like Gracia in Ballard, nixtamalize their own. Last year Perla Ruiz and Roman Javier set tortilla fans into a frenzy with Milpa Masa, their scratch nixtamal tortilla bakery in West Seattle. There’s no going back to mass-produced grocery store tortillas—made with dried corn flour and mucho preservatives, with roughly the same flavor and nutritional impact as a washcloth—after you have one made from kernels grown in Skagit Valley.
Maíz gets corn from Tamoa, a company that reaches through all the industrial-scale hybrid corn to connect small Mexican farms with restaurants. The first time Góngora ordered, he just requested one of every variety in stock—16 in total. “We liked some of them more than others, how they grind and everything,” he says of the daily trial and error conducted in the roomier quarters over at Sazón’s Queen Anne restaurant.
Back at Pike Place Market, the menu board lists the breeds of corn currently fueling the small kitchen, but it’s never quite clear which one will show up in your sopes or gorditas. New corn comes on the menu every two or three weeks—the time it takes Maíz to work its way through an entire sack.
In Mexican street markets, the best antojitos come at you fresh from a fryer. Hot oil is a no-go in this Pike Place Market kitchen, so Maíz grills the thicker masa bases for its gorditas, sopes, and huaraches. Sometimes they’re dry; Góngora’s tinkering with workarounds. The chilaquiles, made with the fried remains of yesterday’s tortillas, offer the best chance to compare nuances among different corn. They’re thicker than the ones brunchers devour at Sazón, drenched with salsa, and served in a takeout container intended for Pike Place Market walkarounds.
Góngora’s corn pursuits opened an avenue for his longtime interest in coffee. Maíz’s cafecito menu puts all that fresh masa to work in warming takeaway cups of atole or chocolate-laced champurrado. Caffe Vita powers horchata lattes and a single-origin Mexican mocha delivers chocolate flavors more spice than Swiss Miss. The Starbucks queue outside doesn’t know what it’s missing.