Stacks of heirloom blue and yellow corn tortillas
Stacks of heirloom blue and yellow corn tortillas Credit: Courtesy Molino Tortilleria

When Aaron Harris’s wife adopted a gluten-free diet he had to start from scratch when it came to tacos. He was raised on his grandmother’s homemade flour tortillas, and she was raised in Chihuahua, where wheat supersedes corn. “She and my mom would make big stacks of flour tortillas, and we would eat those with our meals.”

What’s more, the Harrises were erstwhile Chicagoans who had resettled in the wilds of southwestern Michigan where proper, freshly made corn tortillas are even more scarce than they are in northern Mexico.

“We went to the grocery stores, and it was a pretty sad state,” says Harris, who moved the family to harbor country in 2017 for a screen-printing job he didn’t particularly care for. “We ate them and we were both just completely underwhelmed. We started to question: Why were they so bad?”

Meanwhile, on weekends Harris would go to the kitchen to escape his traveling consultant gig. “My culinary home base was Mexican food because that’s what I was used to eating.” So he set about trying to make fresh corn tortillas from home.

Corn tortillas have thousands of years on their flour descendants, which developed in northern Mexico after the arrival of Europeans—and wheat cultivation. Much earlier, and much further south, Mesoamerican cultures pioneered the process of nixtamalization: soaking and cooking maize in an alkaline solution (ash, for instance), which introduces all kinds of nutritional benefits, and makes it easy to grind hard indigenous corn into masa. That, in turn, led to masa-derived miracles from tortillas to tamales, corundas, sopes, pupusas, champurrado, and more.

As ancient and ubiquitous as the practice is, there wasn’t a lot of information in English on how to do it from home. But Harris’s interest coincided with the rise of LA-based Masienda, which in 2014 started importing and selling rare, single-origin Mexican corn varieties, and kickstarting what’s now referred to as a craft masa movement, analogous to the sourdough surge among home cooks.

“Chicago has always been a nixtamal town,” says Harris of the many tortillerias that employ the method on a factory scale. They mostly work with GMO corn, which makes decent tortillas, but in early 2019 the city’s now-60-year-old El Popocatepetl Tortilleria changed the game by nixtamalizing vibrantly colored, intensely flavorful Oaxacan heirloom varieties imported by Masienda on behalf of Rick Bayless’s restaurants.

At the same time, the company was reaching out to home cooks as well, first with a paperback guide to nixtamalization then with video tutorials on each step of the process, from cooking and soaking corn in calcium hydroxide; to grinding it in a tabletop mill, or molino, outfitted with textured lava stones; mixing and grinding it into fine masa; and forming and cooking perfect puffed tortillas.  

That’s how Harris began experimenting with his own hand-cranked lava rock molino and a five-pound bag of Masienda Oaxacan Olotillo blanco corn. “I get really obsessive about things, so I had many nights of going down the rabbit hole, researching online, and driving her crazy talking about corn.”

Harris practiced and finessed his process—“It’s not simple to get blue or red to really pop from tortillas”—until the outline of a business plan began to take shape. They invested in a $2,500 professional volcanic rock molino from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and in May 2019 they set up a tented table at the farmers’ market in St. Joseph, Michigan, under the name Molino Tortilleria ​​to showcase what they could do with Olotillo Blanco (white), red-purple Bolita Belatove, and Chalqueño Azul (blue). “It was kind of a weird idea, and we didn’t know if it was gonna work or not,” he says. “I think we showed up with like 30 packs of tortillas or something and they sold out within ten minutes.”

Wesley Reith Operations Manager for Granor Farm inspecting heirloom blue corn in their field in Three Oaks MI
Wesley Reith, operations manager for Granor Farm, inspects heirloom blue corn in their field in Three Oaks, Michigan

At that same market they met Wesley Rieth, operations manager of Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, who presented them with a sample of red Bloody Butcher corn he’d grown on a whim. Thus began a relationship in which Granor and Molino test heirloom dent varieties suitable for the short midwestern growing season, unlike the Mexican varieties, which “you can’t grow here,” says Harris. “We have such a short season here that we’re trying to find fast-growing varieties.”

While packaged tortilla sales were strong among harbor country’s itinerant summer tourist market, the couple really wanted to grow a wholesale masa business for local restaurants, an idea that was slower to take off. “If we wanted to run a taco shop it would be the perfect place,” says Christie Harris. “It’s touristy, and there’s tons of people that came through in the summer and want something to eat and experience when they’re on vacation.”

But restaurants were even less likely to buy fresh heirloom masa during the pandemic, so the couple moved their operations to a storefront in Sawyer, Michigan, where Aaron made masa and tortillas—along with made-to-order tacos, quesadillas, and tamales—while Christie stocked the front-of-the-house artisan Mexican spices, textiles, and cookware, including comals and tortilla presses.

Chef interest picked up last spring when Molino started showing up at the Green City, Logan Square, and Wicker Park farmers’ markets. In January the couple decided to close up shop in Michigan and move back to Chicago permanently.  

Molino is currently operating out of the back of Paper Plane Pizza in Lincoln Park, hosting Saturday pop-ups selling fresh masa, tortillas, tamales for home cooks, and quesadillas and other made-to-order food under the direction of Jonathan Zaragoza, who brought Molino masa into the kitchen at Con Todo in Logan Square. “Whatever he’s got we’re using,” says Zaragoza. “The flavor is just on another level. It tastes like actual corn.” Bayless has picked it up too, using Molino’s blue corn masa for the taco course at Topolobampo, and masa dumplings at Bar Sótano. Molino is also on the menu at Mi Tocaya, Pilsen Yards, and Antique Taco, and their chips and tortillas are sold over the counter at Ørkenoy and Foxtrot.

Assortment of heirloom corn grown by Granor Farm in Three Oaks MI
Assortment of heirloom corn grown by Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan Credit: Courtesy Molino Tortilleria

There are more restaurant accounts waiting for the Harrises to move into a Humboldt Park production space and storefront this summer. With equipment upgrades they’ll be able to produce more than a ton of masa each day, diversifying into different sized tortillas, as well as chips and made-to-order food, which Zaragoza is helping to develop, like the blue corn champurrado; tamales with chicken tinga or rajas con queso; and red and green salsa de molcajete they’re selling at the pop-ups. (“Both sides of the aisle can enjoy this salsa,” says Zaragoza.)

The Harrises are now working with a range of Mexican corn varieties from Masienda and continuing to experiment with midwestern varieties grown by Granor, and they’ve also begun grinding Oaxacan-style chocolate with cinnamon and nuts. “A molino in Mexico isn’t just used for corn,” says Harris. “We’re using a single-source, small-farmed cacao, so it really fits in with our ethos of agricultural diversity. Chocolate is just another means to tell that story.”

Molino Tortilleria
Saturdays at Paper Plane Pizza
1625 N. Halsted