It’s no secret that the state of Oaxaca has become a culinary powerhouse. It’s also no secret that the base of almost every celebrated local dish is corn. But heirloom, or criollo, crops are under threat as cheaper, imported varieties and mass-produced corn-flour brands such as Maseca encroach on traditional Oaxacan agriculture. In the quiet Reforma neighborhood of the capital city, one couple fights to preserve these native varieties at their restaurant, Itanoní. The eatery’s name means “corn flower,” and it is a delicious celebration of the treasured crop.
It’s easy to underestimate the humble setup: a small, faded yellow-and-white storefront with plastic chairs and colorful streamers. But one glance at the women lording over the comals, as they carefully roll, press, and grill the masa into tortillas, and you’ll know the restaurant takes its approach to corn very seriously. The backyard even has large corn-filled vats that proudly display their farmers’ names with QR codes that you can scan for further information.
These corn varieties—which include yellow, blue, red, and white—form the base of Itanoní’s celebrated menu. It’s a greatest-hits of tortilla-based delights: savory, bean-and-queso-topped memelas, triangular tetelas that ooze salty, gooey queso fresco, and herbaceous wraps filled with eggs and the local hoja santa leaf. In addition to small, corn-based antojitos, there are larger meals, including a lightly spiced pozole, where hominy and chicken mingle with lime juice, onions, and a three-chile mole. Along with the usual array of aguas frescas, there are also corn drinks, including the warm, hearty atole and the chocolate-flavored tascalate.
Itanoní’s commitment to traditional corn is a reminder of the power of unadulterated crops. One bite of their deceptively simple tortillas and it’s clear why corn is the kind of plant to form the backbone of a region’s cuisine. The tortillas explode with savory, earthy flavors that are completely absent from mass-produced varieties. As a result, their menu has earned countless accolades, including praise from Alice Waters, who hailed the spot as one of her favorite restaurants in Oaxaca in 2009.