Mexico by way of Maine: Tortilleria Pachanga makes fresh corn tortillas in Portland

Posted Feb. 14, 2014, at 11:08 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 16, 2014, at 4:32 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — In a section of the city that hosts an emerging network of craft breweries, a new note adds to the hum of industry.

Housed in a low-slung building on Industrial Way, Lynne Rowe rises early to turn corn into tortillas.

Her company, Tortilleria Pachanga, is newborn, just weeks old. Using organic, Maine-grown corn, which she mills on the premises with her own grinding stones, Rowe is one of a mere handful of tortilla makers in the Northeast.

“I want to make a really great, fresh tortilla with corn that’s grown from as close as possible,” said the former Spanish teacher, who lives on Munjoy Hill.

That means working with local farmers and selling hours-old tortillas to restaurants, food trucks and specialty markets in Greater Portland.

Cooking with local vegetables is one thing, but making a product as time-consuming as tortillas starting with local corn is an elaborate endeavor.

Feeding a wedge of masa, made of corn, water and lime, into a noisy tortilla machine this week, Rowe is undaunted and aglow.

“I’ve been stalking this equipment on eBay for a year,” she says while inspecting her conveyor belt oven, which spits out fresh tortillas every minute. “I’ve wanted a local food business for a long time.”

With $15,000 from crowdfunding site Indiegogo and a $15,000 loan from the Portland Economic Development Corp., Rowe ditched dreams of opening a general store and becoming a cheese maker to create the healthy Mexican staple in Maine.

While living in Mexico for a year and teaching English, the Ohio native, who grew up in Florida, gleaned more than an airtight execution of the gluten-free, unleavened corn tortilla. Beyond technique, she imbues the Mexican ethos, “Without corn, there is no country.”

Easing into operations this week, Rowe is making test batches the way she learned from Michoacan women and a pair of factory owners in Oaxaca. She is intent on using Maine-grown corn, though it isn’t the easiest route.

Working with Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, Rowe will source directly from small growers such as Songbird Farm in Starks.

“I love the idea of being a self-sufficient state. I like the idea of building relations with farmers and love the idea of preserving heritage varieties of corn, and it doesn’t have to travel very far,” she said.

Using organic, yellow dent corn, Rowe will advance to heritage flint corn such as Abenaki Rose as her business progresses. At full throttle, she expects to use 50 pounds of corn a day.

With only a handful of corn tortilla factories in the Northeast, La Nina outside Boston, and Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens, N.Y., Rowe is prying open a new market.

“What she is doing is historical for Maine,” said Cheryl Lewis, executive chef of El Rayo Taqueria in Portland. “It’s really rare that someone is taking a farm-to-table approach on a product like this. Sourcing grain is a big thing to take on. She doesn’t have to do it that way. She’s taking that extra step.”

In the 5½ years the York Street taqueria has been open, Lewis has purchased her tortillas from Boston. This weekend she’ll introduce Tortilleria Pachanga, made a few miles away, into her taco and tamale dishes.

Of course, Lewis admits, if it doesn’t taste good, it wouldn’t be that remarkable.

“The biggest challenge for a taqueria is to find consistent quality tortillas,” Lewis said. “Hers taste like Mexico. It will give us the best taco.”

It could also also boost the state’s corn economy.

Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance, said corn is making a comeback in Maine, and entrepreneurs such as Rowe are the reason why.

“I don’t know anyone else in Maine making a value-add corn product,” Lambke said.

As co-owner of the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Lambke knows that the state’s efforts to reclaim its reputation as the breadbasket of New England hinge on corn.

“In the revival of regional grain economies, corn is taking a more prominent place on the stage alongside wheat and other grains,” said Lambke. “So much corn was grown here by Native Americans, it’s fascinating to see a business just getting started using local corn.”

In this case, Lambke will act as a conduit between corn farmers and Rowe’s tortilleria.

“Corn fills a niche and a need,” said Lambke, who predicts Tortilleria Pachanga will be successful. “She has a unique idea and is out in front of a trend.”

Like the first brewery to open in Maine, Rowe is building an industry. But she wants to stay small.

“I don’t want to be a huge tortilleria that mass produces,” said the 48-year-old. “I’d like to see more tortillerias open up. Maybe in Bangor there will be one. That’s what I see happening instead of me being the queen of all tortillas in the state of Maine.”