A Fresh Batch of Masa Satisfies Cravings in the Bay Area

Why a new surge of talented makers are quite literally working the grind.

Tamales on a picnic table
Bolita Masa

Fresh masa seems to be capturing cravings across the country, both popping up on restaurant menus and in home kitchens. It might be because both maíz (the dried corn) and molinos (the mills to grind it) are more available than ever, at least according to Bon Appetit. Here in the Bay, that same craving certainly seems to have struck locally, with a slew of exciting new openings featuring fresh masa, including Otra and Donají in SF, Bombera in Oakland, and Bolita Masa at the farmers’ market. Let’s not call it a new trend, when we’re talking about a food tradition that dates back a thousand years. But here’s why a new surge of talented chefs and food makers are quite literally working the grind, to bring fresh, fragrant, and flavorful masa home to the Bay.

Tamales with fresh salsas and pickles

At new restaurant Donají in the Mission, Isaí Cuevas puts masa at the heart of the menu. He started as a dishwasher and cooked his way to chef at luxury steakhouses like Kuleto’s and Epic. But he’s originally from Oaxaca, and his grandmother was a tortillera, although she’s slowing down these days at 90 years old. Wanting to reconnect with his roots, Cuevas launched Tamalitos in 2016, bringing tamales to farmers’ markets, and opened Donají in 2021, putting a fresh Oaxacan restaurant in the heart of the Mission. “We’re going full force with corn,” Cuevas says. “In the restaurant we cook the corn all the ways: We steam it in tamales, we do pozole with boiled nixtamalized corn, we do fresh tortillas on the comal, deep fry the masa for the sopes. We try to touch every single element of the cooking experience.”

He’s starting with masa harina, the flour made from nixtamalized, dried, and ground corn. But not the big brand Maseca that sits on grocery shelves, rather a quality option from Alma Semillera in Berkeley, that’s organic and non GMO. Right now he simply mixes in water and oil, and seasons with garlic and salt, and the tamales turn out super smooth and so light they’re almost fluffy. With quality corn, Cuevas says he doesn’t have to add lard to make it tasty. (“No manteca!” he says. “People are always surprised.”) But even though fans already love the tamales, he also brought back a molino from Oaxaca, and he’s working to hook it up in the coming months. Despite the extra effort, Cuevas says that’s the next level up: “Yeah, it’s going to be more labor, but I’m very excited, and I know that people will notice the difference.”

“I will never be completely authentic,” Cuevas disclaims, at least not compared to his grandma, who fires the comal with wood, and personally knows the farmer. “But I want to get as close to home as I can with the tastes and the flavors.”

Emmanuel Galvan of Bolita Masa is the masa guy at the Mission Community Market, where he sells fresh dough by the pound, as well as shaped into tortillas, tetelas (triangles), and tlacoyos (diamonds). Not in fact a chef, he’s managed and consulted for favorite spots like Glena’s and Tacos Oscar. Galvan’s family hails from Jalisco, and he grew up in wine country, where his mom reached for a bag of masa harina to make dinner. It wasn’t until he was living in Mexico City that he first tasted the flavor revelation of freshly milled masa. He bought a hand crank as a clunky hobby in 2015, and finally launched Bolita Masa during the pandemic in 2020.

Galvan sources heirloom corn from Masienda in LA, which supports farmers across Mexico, as well as Tamao out of Texas, which further helps farmers by buying surplus, in more than half a dozen varietals and a rainbow of colors. He also bought a Molinito from Masienda, the small mill used by many restaurants, which sits two feet square on a counter. The process takes two days: Steeping the dried kernels in an alkaline bath, lightly rinsing to preserve the skins and color, first grinding in the Molinito, then kneading in a mixer. That baby Molinito only grinds about 30 pounds an hour, and Bolita sells 120 pounds a week. Small batches of whites and yellows emerge soft with a toasty popcorn aroma, sinking into blues and purples with a toothsome chew and minerally antioxidants.

“It’s worth the effort to me because it allows each varietal of corn to express itself,” Galvan says. “You’re not just buying a white tortilla from the grocery store that’s going to taste the same all the time. You’re buying varietals that have distinct and subtle differences, and there’s a lot of nuance that’s worth seeking out.”

A bowl of pozole with toppings and chips

Arguably the local tastemaker is Gonzalo Guzmán, who’s been working the grind at Nopalito for more than a decade, where the crispy carnitas come with a warm stack of tender tortillas. Originally from Veracruz, he grew up growing corn, before also working his way up from dishwasher to chef and owner in San Francisco. Since Nopalito opened in 2009, he’s been dedicated to making everything from scratch. The true labor of love is the nixtamalization, which has required lots of trial and error over the years. “That was the whole idea — everything from scratch. Fresh tortillas were the right thing to do. Masa is the heart and soul of the restaurant.”

Guzmán previously used local yellow corn from Sacramento, but he also recently switched to Masienda, in order to support farmers in Mexico. He’s cycled through a couple of mills, first a small molino, then one from Mexico that had to be completely rewired. Now he’s got a big custom molino about 4 feet long, with a heavy volcanic stone motored by 5 horsepower. It’s the same process steeping the corn overnight, although he prefers to scrub the skins off entirely. What’s cool is he has the control to switch up the grind, dialing finer for supple tortillas or coarser for crunchy tostadas. Powering through a couple hundred pounds an hour, Nopalito makes up to 800 pounds of fresh masa a week, in order to feed two restaurant locations, takeout, and parties. Cleaning and sharpening the stone is a big task, alone.

It’s exciting to see other makers digging into fresh masa these days, Guzmán confirms. He’s been hearing rumbles of interest for maybe five years, but suspects some got delayed by the pandemic. Fresh masa can still mean different things — a bag of masa harina to mix, a pound of fresh dough to press, or a stack of fresh tortillas, and the quality of ingredients can always vary. But all three of these makers echoed that putting in the extra effort to grind their own masa helped them feel connected to their culture. San Francisco is a city that’s long been obsessed with meaty burritos — which can be delicious! — but tend to treat a flour tortilla as a bland canvas. By rolling back to fresh masa, “If we create more opportunities for people to learn about the complexities and depths of Mexican food, it will hopefully create a demand for more regional cuisines,” Galvan says. “I think that’s why it’s important in the Bay Area.”

He’d love to see more Oaxacan or Puebla restaurants using corn from those specific regions. “But you can start by showing people that through a rainbow of colors, there’s more than just one type of masa. And hopefully people will be curious and go on a journey with us.”

Donají's tamales and Bolita's fresh masa and more are available for pickup through Pastel across the Bay Area.