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Yoli Tortilleria brings stone-ground tortillas to Kansas City

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Posted at 10:29 AM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 11:29:15-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Corn tortillas glide steadily out of the oven at Yoli Tortilleria in the East Bottoms of Kansas City.

Marissa and Mark Gencarelli said the company makes fresh tortillas every day, up to a few thousand an hour.

Three years ago, there were no business plans. It all started as simply a search for the tortillas Marissa grew up eating in Mexico.

"We were going a lot to Mexico to see my family so we would go to Sonora. We would go to Mexico City," she said. "We would go all over Mexico traveling and visiting my friends and family and when we'd come back, we couldn't find those nixtamal tortillas."

The ingredients make the process sound simple, but that's not the case.

"Every single step of the way has to be perfect when you're using just three ingredients," Marissa said.

For them, the first step is whole kernel corn.

"White corn, yellow corn, blue corn and red corn," Marissa said.

"A nixtamal tortilla is where you take whole kernel corn, you cook it in lime and water and it steeps overnight," Mark said. "From there, you stone grind it and grind it into the masa and then press, cut and bake it through the tortilla oven."

Though the mechanics of the process are modern, the recipe is ancient.

"So you have this nearly 3,000-year-old process that originally used wood ash, corn and water," said Jose Ralat, author of "American Tacos: A History and Guide. "Most tortillerias that make tortillas from scratch, and this is the ultimate 'from scratch,' no longer use wood ash. They use 'cal,' or slaked limestone."

His family, including his son, are also fans of the tortillas from Yoli.

"It should smell like a cornfield on your hands, its delightful," Ralat said about nixtamal tortillas.

Marissa and Mark said getting the masa to the proper consistency required research.

"We kept struggling with the grinders," Marissa explained.

Now, their machine uses volcanic stones to grind the nixtamalized corn.

"The volcanic stones, they're hand carved so that they can grind to the proper consistency," Mark said.

"It's super soft, that masa," added Marissa, rolling the dough in her hand. "Only corn, water and lime."

The couple said at first they started talking to local chefs about their tortillas. Now, you can find them in restaurants and grocery stores around Kansas City.

But they didn't stop at corn tortillas.

"I'm from Sonora," Marissa explained. "If you're from the North like I am, flour also holds a very special place in your heart."

This summer, Yoli Tortilleria opened a retail shop in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. Customers can watch people making flour tortillas as they shop.

The logo above the door and on each package is a tribute to Marissa's mother.

"It really represents a spirit of adventure to go ahead and try new things," she said.

Marissa remembers growing up and walking to a tortilleria close to her house.

"Our main meal was at two o'clock and I would walk over there and get the tortillas every day," she said. "I went back and visited last year."

Marissa told the owner how she is making tortillas in Kansas City, bringing memories of the tortillas she loved to each of the thousands of tortillas Yoli Tortilleria makes each day.

"We just keep surprising ourselves. I think that's the best part," she said.