To become familiar with the process of making a delicious tortilla here in New York City, there is no better place to go than Tortilleria Nixtamal, which names itself directly after the process by which they do it. For nearly ten years the place has been grinding and flattening corn to produce quality tortillas. They are one of the leaders in making the "no good Mexican in New York City" statement a thing of the past. If you are reading this and shaking your head, I will once again just say you are not eating at the right places.
You can see the finished product rolling up the conveyor belt inside the ground floor restaurant (above), but the behind-the-scenes preparation of the corn and first steps are downstairs in a steamy basement. On a recent visit I was able to visit this subterranean operation by the generosity and friendliness of the employees. The corn is first put in large basins and soaked in an alkaline solution. A series of tubes that you must duck under and squeeze around shoot the cooked corn out to other containers. This soaking/cooking process makes it easier to grind, but also releases more of the healthy benefits and increases both flavor and aroma. After seeing the whole process, it makes eating each wrapper that much more enjoyable.
The finely ground masa is used for the tortillas, the coarsely ground masa goes into tamales, and the unground hominy is used for the pozole, a specialty here. The recession special ($7, above) is a great deal because it allows you to try both the pozole and a tamal. In my opinion, the soup is what shines brightest at Nixtamal, and the lime, onions, and ground red pepper they give you to add make it a creation of your own liking each time.
There are many ways to try the tortillas, but no better one is the order of three tacos ($7, above). They obviously want the tortilla to shine, so they do not stuff them too much and overwhelm it, and wrap the contents entirely, ensuring that your mouth's first taste is of that carefully constructed container. The tostada ($3, below) is another incarnation, but has the added benefit of delicious cheese and cream. These are important, as the meats and sauces of Nixtamal have never been able to come close to the tortillas themselves, and maybe that is the point. But over the years Nixtamal has fashioned (and heavily marketed) itself for the gringo eater, so it is entirely possible that the tastes have been tamed.
If they are not so busy, don't forget to ask for a mini-tour of downstairs!