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How to Tell You’re Eating a Fake Blue Corn Tortilla: Kernel of Truth Organics Has a Mission

1:59 PM PDT on August 22, 2018

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]f you’re eating a blue corn tortilla in Los Angeles and you’re not at a fancy Mexican restaurant, chances are that it is just a regular white corn tortilla dyed blue with artificial food coloring.

This is one of the sad realities that you find out while visiting Kernel of Truth Organics and hanging out with co-founder Ricardo “Rick” Ortega. The Echo Park native and his new Boyle Heights tortilleria want to change that reality.

Kernel of Truth Organics is the first and only full tortilleria in L.A. making tortillas from certified organic American corn. For the first time since Ortega and his business partner Omar Ahmed started in 2014, they are offering their tortillas — including those blue ones — at retail to the public. They sell the chewy disks of corn gold at $3.99 a dozen on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It's $2.99 for their yellow corn ones. 

Ricardo Ortega at Kernel of Truth Organics/Photos by Javier Cabral.

Until January of this year, their business focused mostly on restaurants; they were operating at a tiny space in El Mercado de East Los Angeles and couldn’t handle more production. But since the future of that historic building is in turmoil — as it attempts to become something that “hipsters are into” — it had long been time for KOTO’S operation to find a new home.  

“Between all the tenants who were on temporary leases like us, you can just feel the mercado’s vibe becoming a bleak weekend-only memory of its former self,” Ortega says.

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]side from the mercado’s uncertain future, Kernel of Truth had simply outgrown the space. They are currently pumping out about 100,000 tortillas a week. Their biggest clients include Mexican powerhouses in all corners of the city, like Guerrilla Tacos, Guelaguetza, Cacao Mexicatessen, and Gracias Madre. They even had to buy a special delivery van just to make deliveries once a week to taquerias as far away as San Jose and San Diego.

Blue corn being nixtamalized

And as the tortilleria was hitting critical tortilla mass with new clients, Ortega found out that Lupe’s Tortilleria on Cesar Chavez Avenue, just a few blocks away from El Mercado, was up for lease. So between them and Tortilleria Del Bajio (an old school tortilleria that has been flying low for two decades and has helped KOTO by offering their facilities to make their masa), they now have a promising new home.

'We spend about four hours a day babysitting our blue corn.'

Despite this growth in business, KOTO is still not growing as fast as they were hoping, and it is because of that delicate blue corn and this year’s blazing hot summer heat. Ortega sources his corn from organic growers in Illinois and Nebraska and the blue corn is particularly harder to handle. Its blue pigment, which is the same pigment that makes blueberries blue and purple cauliflowers purple, named anthocyanin, makes it more susceptible to spoilage.

“We spend about four hours a day babysitting our blue corn,” Ortega says in the same tone a parent would use to talk about their problem child. Ortega swears that “it is one very fickle corn variety, especially when it’s this hot out,” which is why many tortillerias prefer to just paint their white tortillas blue, add preservatives, or just fry it into a tortilla chip so it can last forever.

Top tortilla is made from masa harina and dyed blue with artificial food coloring. Bottom tortilla is made from real blue corn

“We were arriving at our client’s restaurants and in just a few hours, they were fermenting and turning pink,” he says.

While Ortega’s blue corn tortilla production only accounts for about 10 percent of their total sales, he is hoping that more people learn to distinguish between the fake blue corn tortillas and real ones. “You should always be able to see tiny flecks of yellow, even in blue corn tortillas because the germ will always be yellow, despite the kernel’s color,” he tells me, as he brings out a fake one and a real one to compare the two.

The fake one is uniformly blue and when you take a deep whiff, it smells of burnt rubber thanks to preservatives made up of different acids that Ortega and other tortilleros in the industry call veneno, or poison, because it’s known to sting your eyes if it gets in the air. The true blue corn tortilla made from actual blue corn is more of a black color and smells of fresh mud.

RELATED: After Almost 75 years, Carrillo’s Tortilleria & Mexican Delicatessen Remains a San Fernando Valley Staple

Ortega smelling a true blue corn tortilla

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]hrough many frustrating hours and “elbow grease,” as Ortega puts it, he’s found that if he nixtamalizes the corn longer than the typical eight hours that most tortilleros do, he doesn’t have to add preservatives to it. He’s also taken to Youtube to find out DIY ways of perfecting his product. For example, to cool his nixtamal water so he can ferment the corn longer, he adapted a technique that craft brewers use to cool the wort for beer by using copper wire and ice-cold water.

He shares that he’s already been confronted by members of a local anti-gentrification activist group who argued that his organic tortillas are only for “white people” and not for the community, which he understands. After all, people who are used to buying tortillas at a penny or less made from GMO corn will take years to convince of the positive economic and environmental benefits of tortillas made from organic corn.

The irony is that the issue of affordable pricing is the reason they haven’t focused on retail in the past, since they refuse to let any market that carries their tortillas sell them for over $2.99 a dozen and not many markets are willing to sell them at such a low price point. The only ones that regularly do are Grassroots Natural Market & Kitchen, both Cookbook Markets, and Machete hot sauce’s booth at the Hollywood Farmers Market on Sundays.

White corn being nixtamalized

Ortega informs me that this price-per-tortilla has allowed him to poach a tortillero from another tortilleria nearby who was being exploited and barely getting paid the minimum wage. He put the tortillero on a salary and for the first time in his career and the tortillero now has two full days off to rest and be with his family.  

“I’m just trying my hardest to be there for everyone in L.A.’s taco universe,” Ortega says and takes a deep breath.  He’s getting ready for another late night of tortilla production by playing Matamoska – a bilingual, L.A. ska-punk band – really loud on an old beat-up boombox caked with dried masa. “From high-end taqueros to everyone’s abuela, everyone loves and deserves a good, honest tortilla.”

RELATED: Do You Know How to Read Tacos? Steve Alvarez Does

Editors note: Follow along with L.A. Taco editor-at-large Gustavo Arellano, as he hosts the Great Tortilla Tournament on “Good Food” on KCRW.

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