If tacos are salvation, the tortillas are the prayer.
That’s the philosophy of future Durham taqueria Ex-Voto Cocina Nixtamal, taking its name from the offerings left at shrines to miracles great and small. In Ex-Voto’s case, that miracle is corn.
Ex-Voto is the latest project from Angela Salamanca, owner of Centro Mexican restaurant in downtown Raleigh and its upstairs mezcal bar Gallo Pelon Mezcaleria. She is teaming up with Marshall Davis, Gallo’s former manager and longtime bartender, to open Ex-Voto in the new Durham Food Hall.
They’ve dedicated the restaurant to the tortilla and the tamale, or more specifically, to the heirloom corn masa dough that makes them. Ex-Voto will be one of few taquerias in the South to use a technique called nixtamalization, a laborious method of processing corn into masa.
“When you bring in Mexican corn, it actually tastes like corn, truly corn,” Davis said. “It sounds so silly, but the only way to taste the difference is to taste the difference. When the tortilla is that good you don’t have to do too much.”
Tacos are typically limited to what’s inside — to the marinated pork or grilled chicken or braised beef, reducing the tortilla that’s holding it all together to mere afterthought. Often it tastes like it.
“A lot of people view the tortilla as just a vessel to get things into your mouth,” Davis said.
Ex-Voto’s aim is for the tortillas to actually taste like corn, like sweetness and earth, and compared to the stacks on supermarket shelves, like anything at all.
“This has been a conversation we’ve been having for a long time. Can we bring this corn experience to our community?” Salamanca said.
The process starts with dried corn, heirloom Mexican or North Carolina varieties, Davis said, which is soaked and cooked in water then ground, keeping the corn’s nutritional integrity intact. This method has been largely replaced by industrial processing and instant corn flour like Maseca, particularly in the United States.
Even in Mexico, the old style of making tortillas has been threatened, the New York Times reported last year, replaced by cheaper methods, as well as wheat breads and the rise of fast food chains.
The difference is important, Davis said, calling his first fresh tortilla, scarfed years ago on a trip to Michoacan, a life-changing moment. Davis said it’s like having pancakes made from scratch versus instant mix.
“It was like I had never had a taco before,” Davis said.
Researching Ex-Voto meant multiple trips to Mexico for Salamanca and Davis, most recently to food capital Oaxaca last year.
“I think being there is really important it,” Salamanca said. “It gives you perspective of what else is possible in what we’re doing. You’re eating very differently, you’re smelling different things. It’s the whole experience of being in Mexico.”
A natural progression
Salamanca opened Centro 12 years ago with her uncle Carlos, cooking a particularly vibrant and authentic menu of Mexican dishes. Later, she opened mezcal bar Gallo Pelon upstairs as a temple to the smoky cousin of tequila. Davis came on as a bartender and eventual manager, starting the partnership that would lead to Ex-Voto.
Originally, Ex-Voto was planned for the Transfer Co. Food Hall, but Salamanca and Davis changed course last year and joined the Durham project, the fourth food hall planned for the Triangle. Salamanca said it became a better fit and put the company in a new market in the Triangle.
“I’m a big believer, at my age, that you never force anything to be,” Salamanca said.
Until the Durham Food Hall is up and running, possibly later this year, Ex-Voto is a pop-up taqueria, existing in flashes around the Triangle, at breweries, restaurants and wine shops. They always sell out, often very quickly.
With each restaurant, Salamanca said she has tried to add a new experience to the Triangle.
“I feel like this is the next natural progression of what else we do,” Salamanca said. “We want to bring something to the area, an experience that is really special, an offering to our community. That offering is corn. It’s more flavorful, it’s at its best....Stepping back to the real way corn is treated in Mexico.”