Three and a half millenniums ago, the Mayans figured out the trick for turning hard dried corn into supple dough, soaking the kernels with wood ashes, burned lime or charred mollusk shells until they shed their hulls and grew soft and pliant. Only then were they ready to be ground into flour and made into the dough called masa, without which there would be no tortillas and tamales.
Today, few Mexican restaurants in New York brave this time-intensive process, known as nixtamalization. Some buy fresh masa; others rely on Maseca, a brand of dehydrated nixtamal. But at Factory Tamal, a small, mostly takeout shop on the Lower East Side, Fernando Lopez is faithful to the ancient Mayan way.
Into a vast pot of warm water goes cal — food-grade calcium hydroxide, the modern equivalent of the slaked lime the Mayans extracted while building their limestone temples. When this comes to a boil, Mr. Lopez tosses in dried white field corn, which he used to import from Mexico until taxes went up. (Now he gets it from California.)
A brief simmer, and the mixture is left to cool for four or five hours. “My grandma did it overnight,” said Mr. Lopez, 35, but at the shop, turnover is high and he can’t wait.
As it steeps, the corn intensifies in color and releases a scent like rain steaming off sun-baked earth. Afterward, it’s drained, rinsed and rubbed by hand to remove the hulls. More time passes while it dries. Then it’s ground coarsely in an old stone mill, sifted through again for any stray hulls and finally made into masa.
All this for a tamal that costs $2.
The suffering is not in vain. Mr. Lopez’s tamales are beautifully fluffy, clingy and crumbly at once, a texture that calls to mind the airiest of poundcakes. Lard is whipped in, along with chicken stock, bringing voluptuousness to every bite. (Mr. Lopez plans soon to offer vegetarian versions made with olive oil.)
Most fillings come neatly sealed at the center, like strips of chicken streaked with cilantro-bright salsa verde or jalapeños gently muffled by queso and given a licorice grace note of epazote. But the best can’t quite be contained, as witness the dark tie-dye of mole poblano, seeping through. The sauce is thickened by plantains and broken-down ciabatta from Balthazar, with a hit of cinnamon from Abuelita chocolate and the sweetness of raisins and star anise countered by buttery almonds and cumin’s warm musk.
Mr. Lopez’s innovations include a tamal that’s a take on the Mexican dish tinga, enclosing shreds of chicken that has long wallowed with chipotle, tomatoes and onions, and another with a seam of bacon and mozzarella — the bacon just enough to make you thirst.
He still remembers his grandmother’s tamales: “I always keep the flavor in my mouth.” She died before he started making his own, so he had to cobble together a recipe by consulting his mother, his aunt and his wife’s grandmother. He kept running tests until the flavor gave him “the feeling when I was a 5-year-old.”
The rest of the menu is devoted to egg sandwiches, panini and B.L.T.s. “I see what the neighborhood needs,” Mr. Lopez said. One of the few other Mexican offerings is a diminutive but satisfying torta with layers of avocado, chipotle, quesillo (stretchy Oaxacan cheese) and a lemony burst of papalo. It’s close to a cemita, save for the ciabatta it’s served on. “I can’t call it a cemita if I don’t have the right bread,” Mr. Lopez said.
He grew up in Cholula, Mexico, and at the age of 15 “ran away from home,” he said, and made his way to the United States. Who taught him to cook? “Life,” he replied. His first job was as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant; he worked his way up to line cook, then moved on to other restaurants: Italian, Thai, Mediterranean.
Three years ago, he started making tamales at home and selling them outside a bodega in Queens. It was hard. “When you steam tamales, the apartment gets humid,” he said.
In January, he took over the space that had been Cabalito, a Salvadoran pupusa joint where he was the chef. He outfitted it with a photograph of the volcano Popocatépetl, which smolders near his wife’s hometown, Atlixco, and a slumping red couch strewn with pillows made from servilletas, napkins hand-embroidered by his mother and his wife, one teaching the other, passing the tradition on.
Already he has outgrown the little shop. On Thursday, he shifted to a new, slightly bigger location, around the corner on Ludlow Street. He promised that the pillows would come with him.