Valley Bounty: Masa Mexicano
Published August 25th, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Summer produce stars at Florence taqueria: Masa Mexicano’s fresh tortillas are like nothing you could find in a store
By Jacob Nelson
The abundance of August produce is a chef’s dream, especially in the Valley, where we are surrounded by hundreds of local farms.
Soon after chef Roberto Saravia of Masa Mexicano explains this, he’s interrupted by a delivery of fresh jalapenos from a Westhampton farmer, as if to prove the point.
Saravia opened Masa Mexicano in Florence on the cusp of the pandemic. Three years later, he and the restaurant are hitting their stride. They offer a short menu of popular tacos, tortas, other entrees, and rotating specials, keeping choices simple, and fresh ingredients cycling through the restaurant quickly. Most items are gluten-free, with several vegetarian and vegan options available as well.
“We make our own tortillas every morning, and when summer is in season, we try to use as many local ingredients as possible,” he says. “Our focus is providing customers high-quality food made from great ingredients, without such a high price tag.”
It should come as no surprise that the foundational ingredient in Masa Mexicano’s kitchen is masa harina, or nixtamalized corn flour, hailing from Mexico. They get theirs from a company who sources organic heirloom corn from family-owned farms in Oaxaca.
“As soon as you open a fresh bag, you can tell the difference,” Saravia says. “It smells so rich, and the tortillas it makes … compared to a store-bought tortilla, it’s like night and day.”
Both the small tortillas that grip tacos and the 10-inch rounds that hold together quesadillas are smooth, slightly chewy and pleasantly flavorful. More than a vehicle for toppings, they’re co-stars in any dish. Any that aren’t used fresh become tortilla chips the next day.
While tortillas set the stage, local produce brings bright flavors and creativity to the menu.
“I’ve been using red peppers and red onions from Red Fire Farm (in Montague and Granby), and greens, hot peppers, and other things from Crabapple Farm (in Chesterfield),” Saravia says. “I have a booth selling food at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market (1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Plaza behind Thornes Marketplace) and we do a little trading with them and other farmers there. I’ll make them food and they’ll give me veggies.”
One local special right now is their take on Mexican street corn, topped with ancho-lime mayo, cotija cheese and chili flakes with a lime wedge on the side.
“We get fresh corn every other day from Four Rex Farm in Hadley,” says Saravia. “It’s our third year buying from them, and their corn is amazing. Pretty soon I’ll start using it to make summer corn soup too.”
The latter is a recipe Saravia learned from Unmi Abkin, a celebrated chef with local ties who most recently owned Coco and the Cellar Bar in Easthampton before closing it and stepping away in 2021.
“My dad worked with Unmi when she ran Cha Cha Cha in Northampton,” he explains. “I was eight at the time, and over the years she became a close mentor and pretty much family. She has helped me a lot (with) learning what goes into owning a restaurant, menu development, things like that.”
Saravia’s biological family also had a big influence on his love of cooking, leading to his start working in restaurants at age 14. Before Masa Mexicano, he worked at Bueno Y Sano, Judie’s Restaurant in Amherst (now closed), Osteria Vespa in Amherst, Esselon Cafe in Hadley, and served as sous chef at Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland.
These experiences helped him imagine what his own restaurant might look like. Then, three-and-a-half years ago just as that dream was poised to take off, things came to a screeching halt.
“I signed my lease in February 2020, and my plan was to open in May,” he says.
COVID slammed that door shut until December 2020, when they figured out a way to open while navigating safety requirements. At first it was takeout only, but eventually indoor dining returned, and summer allowed them to add outdoor seating.
“I found these large wooden spools from a construction company, and after work I sanded, repainted and turned them into outdoor tables,” says Saravia. “They’ve been holding up well so far.”
Hard work and creativity are how Masa Mexicano has persevered. This fall they hope to invest in new kitchen equipment while adding seating and enhancing the ambiance of their dining areas. Including, yes, upgrading that handmade outdoor seating.
“We just got approved for a beer and wine license, so we want to add bar seating inside,” Saravia says. “We also want to get new tables with umbrellas for outside, and a new electric griddle.”
To make this happen, they’ve applied for a Biz-M-Power crowdfunded matching grant through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC), a state-funded organization that invests in small businesses. For every dollar they raise by Aug. 29, up to $20,000, MGCC will contribute 2:1 matching funds, effectively tripling individuals’ donations. Those interested can learn more at bit.ly/masafundraiser.
The thin margins inherent in the restaurant business model are especially challenging to new owners, who may not have much financial cushion to get their ideas off the ground. For them, programs like MGCC’s small business grants offer a small but important leg up towards financial sustainability.
Consistent staffing is another challenge for many restaurants, but one which Masa Mexicano seems to have a handle on. Saravia’s 22 years of experience in kitchens both nurturing and stressful is helping him shape a positive workplace culture.
“You’ve just got to treat people like human beings,” he says. “Here everyone gets a 30-minute paid break, we’re always joking around, and if it’s slow and you’re hungry, you can eat. The two things I’m strict about are food quality – that it’s made and seasoned correctly, and ingredients are fresh – and the cleanliness of the restaurant.”
Now at the peak of harvest season on local farms, the fresh ingredients part is easy.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) to learn more about restaurants using fresh ingredients from local farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.