Meet the “Masa and Mezcal Goddess” Bringing Real Tortillas to Washington

"Americans don't know what a tortilla is supposed to taste like," says Mexico City native Joahna Hernandez.

Photograph courtesy of Joahna Hernandez.

Lately, a slew of chefs have had masa mania, whether Brad DeBoy making tostadas at Elle or Adam Greenberg rolling tortillas at Coconut Club. Credit Joahna Hernandez, known as the “masa and mezcal goddess” among her industry friends. The Mexico City native works with small farms to source the heritage corn that produces the kind of rich, flavorful masa she grew up eating—and that chefs of all nationalities love cooking with.

“Corn is a mono-crop in the US—you feed cattle or make corn syrup,” Hernandez says. “Americans don’t know what a tortilla is supposed to taste like.”

It was the quest for real tortillas—and good Mexican food—that led Hernandez, who was then working for the Mexican Tourism Board, to switch careers. She was a manager at Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan for six years while starting her company, Manos de Maiz. Initially, she imported heirloom varieties from indigenous Purépecha farmers in Mexico, nixtamalized the kernels, and ground them for masa dough and “maizopes”—sopes that she griddles at the Mount Pleasant farmers market. Now that she has joined the White House FreshFarm market, which requires local sourcing, she has added organic corn from Pennsylvania.

Ironically, Hernandez doesn’t sell her dough or tortillas to Mexican restaurants because her process is expensive and laborious, and she can’t commit to large orders. “In America, we’re used to industrialized products,” she says. “Going back to basic isn’t that basic. It’s very complex.”

This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.