When I visit El Paso, I like to walk by the old Elite Confectionary soda fountain once frequented by José Doroteo Arango Arámbula. Most people know him as Mexican Revolution general and folk hero Pancho Villa. I like to imagine the grizzly, mustachioed, bandolier-wearing fighter finishing a fruity soda through his straw, breaking off pieces of peanut brittle to share with his men, or smiling at the sight of a bowl of ice cream. Villa had a heck of sweet tooth. He was also a staunch teetotaler who, during his time as governor of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914, outlawed alcohol consumption. He also destroyed bars and wine cellars, according to the El Paso County Historical Commission plaque on the site of the old confectionery.
Many businesses have prospered off Villa’s reputation and likeness—and even those of his horse. Take, for example, the tequila brand named Siete Leguas, the name of Villa’s beloved Mexican Criollo steed, even though, again, Villa did not drink alcohol. The latest to leverage the revolutionary’s legacy are the owners of the Mexican, a fancy new restaurant in Dallas. The star of the Mexican’s cocktail menu is a $250 margarita bearing Pancho Villa’s name. It’s an extravagant blend of Clase Azul ultra añejo tequila, which retails for more than $1,600 a bottle; Grand Marnier Cuvée 1880, which retails for $330; lime, of course; and citrus gold salt. The beverage goes against everything Pancho Villa stood for—not only because of his renunciation of alcohol, but also because of his views on the social responsibility of the affluent. He once said: “What else is there for the rich to do if not to relieve the poor of their misery?”
Roberto González Alcalá, a co-owner of the Mexican, is aware of Villa’s abstinence, as well as his frugality, but says his restaurant named its most expensive drink after him because “everybody knows him; he’s a legend.”
This cognitive dissonance doesn’t stop at the margarita. It is also evident in the restaurant’s tortillas. González is the onetime CEO of Gruma Mexico and Latin America. His father, Roberto González Barrera, established Gruma near Monterrey. Gruma is famous for refining the large-scale production of masa harina, dehydrated corn flour that, when mixed with water, turns into a dough for making tortillas at home. Gruma’s marquee masa harina brand, Maseca, is commonly used by tortillerias across Mexico and the U.S. It’s found at big-box stores and neighborhood Mexican markets. The preservative that gives Maseca its long shelf life imbues the tortillas with an unpleasant sweetness followed by a metallic aftertaste.
Those are the same tortillas used at the Mexican. There is a difference between the Gruma tortillas purchased at a store and those at the Mexican, though. There are no telltale conveyor-belt indentations on the restaurant’s tortillas. Instead, the masa is rolled into balls (testales) and flattened into discs in a tortilla press before being cooked on a flattop grill. The Mexican’s tortillas have uneven, scalloped edges and charred spots that give them the appearance of having been pressed by hand and finished on a wood-fired griddle. But the tortillas’ even texture and blanched color give away their origins.
I first tasted them in the restaurant’s appetizers, which are served in the form of tacos. The barbacoa de arrachera, a traditional northern Mexican dish, is one of the Mexican’s signature starters. The slow-cooked lean mixture of brisket and flank steak is brought to the table and placed on the charred tortillas by servers using spoons. The flavor reminded me of that of a mediocre offering one would find at a modest taqueria, although this dish had a more pretentious presentation.
In the dedicated taco section of the menu, eight options showcase the disappointing tortillas. I opted for the filet and bone marrow, the pescado culichi (fish with a verdant salsa and too much cabbage), the hongos (mushrooms), the camarones gobernador (shrimp and cheese), and the carne asada (grilled flank steak). The Maseca tortillas’ flavor overpowered the flavors of most of the fillings, and the richness typical of bone marrow was lost in the mess.
When I asked to confirm what kind of tortillas the restaurant offers, the co-owner proudly said, “Maseca, of course!” Given his connection to Gruma and Mission Foods, a Gruma subsidiary based in Irving, it’s no surprise González serves Maseca-made tortillas. However, this decision goes against his aspiration to create what he calls “the ultimate fine-dining Mexican experience.” Even with the Mexican’s fashionable interior design, quality ingredients, and high prices, González isn’t achieving his goal.
To do so, he needs to source non–genetically modified, heirloom corn from Mexico and nixtamalize corn in-house. If nixtamalizing in-house is out of the question, purchasing fresh nixtamalized masa is the next-best option. Without the finest possible tortillas, no one can cook the finest Mexican cuisine.
Corn is at the heart of Mexican culture. The Maya’s sacred text, the Popol Vuh, posits that Mexicans were created from corn. The genesis story lives on today with the aphorism “sin maíz no hay país” (“without corn, there is no culture”). Masa made from nixtamalized corn was the main vehicle of sustenance for indigenous Mexicans. Nixtamalization, the process by which corn kernels are cooked and soaked in an alkaline mixture of water and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), separates the outer hull from the corn’s interior, releasing a slew of nutrients. Nixtamalization transforms the grain into a superfood.
The restaurant owners, chefs, and taqueros who nixtamalize heirloom Mexican corn are reacting to the near destruction of corn farming in Mexico, contributed to by the rise of Maseca and government policies that favor corn grown on corporate farms. The use of nixtamalization and heirloom corn returns the focus of the food to its Mexican roots and artisanship. You can call it “craft Mexican” if you want. You can even call it “authentic.” I don’t. I just call it Mexican food—but that’s not what’s served at the Mexican.