LONE ROCK - Driving down most Southwest Wisconsin roads through summer and into the fall, you’ll likely see at least one cornfield.
We continue to drive past them without even a thought about how they come into play in our daily diets.
When Marine Biologist Julian Zepeda moved to Wisconsin with his wife Heidi, the thought occurred to him, “in a place that has so much corn, why is it so hard to find a decent tortilla?” And with that, the seed that would grow into Tortilleria Zepeda was planted.
Julian, who is originally from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, now lives in Madison with his wife Heidi and together they own Tortilleria Zepeda in Lone Rock.
The couple met when Heidi was in Mexico, to assist with the sale of a lime plantation her father owned. Shortly after the couple married and settled in Madison near where Heidi grew up in Spring Green.
“This business was just a calling to me,” Julian describes the tortilleria’s humble beginnings. “It was almost a selfish need. I was missing Mexican food so much. I would go to the farmers market and get corn to make my own tortillas because I just couldn’t find ones that tasted right.”
Julian described going to grocery stores and walking down the tortilla aisles and picking up a distinct smell. Not a smell that he associated with the tortillas he would eat back home. He quickly realized that It was the gums and preservatives used in mass produced tortillas to give them their elasticity that is lost during the process of making them with modern techniques in mass production
Determined to have a better tortilla, Julian took to his home kitchen and began creating.
“We were in this tiny, tiny studio apartment, and Julian was cooking the corn and grinding it with a meat grinder over and over to get the consistency right,” Heidi recalled with a chuckle. The couple began selling them to friends and neighbors and were met with great enthusiasm.
“When I worked at Trek Bicycles we were a one car household and I would barter with tortillas for carpools, and my coworkers would fight over who gave me a ride home.”
Julian had left his job working at a lab in the Madison area to commit himself full-time to making the tortillas, and with their popularity, Heidi was also able to leave her corporate job to work full-time in what had grown into the family business.
Perhaps one of the biggest things that sets the masa created by the Zepeda’s apart is the traditional method for which they’re created. The Zepeda’s use an ancient process called nixtamalization, which chemically changes the corn in a variety of ways.
Unlike wheat, corn is gluten free, and it doesn’t contain elements to naturally allow it to become a mass needed for making a dough. Stand alone, corn meal is more likely to slump into an oatmeal kind of texture, which doesn’t lend itself well to the creation or tortillas.
Bring in nixtamalization.
Nixtamalization is the process of adding an alkali solution to the dried kernels to transform them into a more workable and nutritious product. The process is fairly simple, with just the corn and calcium hydroxide or more as its more commonly known, lime. The corn is boiled in a water and lime solution and then soaked for eight or more hours in the solution. After this the alkaline solution introduces the changes to the corn, breaking down the hard cell walls and releasing the pectin inside allowing the masa to bind more easily and leaving it with a Playdoh like texture when ground.
When corn undergoes the nixtamalization process it is more easily ground, the nutritional value is increased, the flavor and aroma is improved and the mycotoxins are also reduced. Traditionally, this process was achieved by cooking the corn in ash before grinding. It is thought the process dates back to 1200-1500 BCE.
In addition to utilizing this traditional form of processing the corn, the Zepeda’s also only use high quality regional corn grown right up the road.
John Chitwood of Blue River supplies the non-GMO white corn for the white corn tortillas, Meadowlark Organics of Ridgeway Wisconsin provides Red Flint Corn for the red corn tortillas, Nicholas and Gary Zimmer of Otter Creek Organics in Avoca also provides organic yellow corn for the ever favorite yellow corn tortillas as well.
Additionally, the Zepeda’s have been able to create limited edition tortilla batches through the help of small scale farmers interested in growing indigienous Wisconsin and Midwestern varieties of corn as well.
All Mexican made and designed equipment is used for their work. Julian notes that he has taken trips to Mexico City personally to choose the equipment used at the Tortilleria to ensure authenticity of their product.
The corn is ground in an industrial grinder using a volcanic stone. Gone are the days of working with a hand crank meat grinder. However, Julian still calls back to his scientific background when working on creating the masa for their products.
“I have to keep track of the weather forecast to help determine my work for the day,” Julian, noting that the dramatic changes in the weather can affect the creation of the products. Keeping detailed notes about the fluctuations, the nixtamalization process and more that has gone into creating the masa and tortillas has certainly scratched Julian’s scientific itch.
As the company grew out of the couple’s apartment and the pressure of the pandemic closing restaurants also came, the tortilla was able to pivot and add employees to their process. The couple relocated to the former Lonesome Milling building in downtown Lone Rock, a building that at one time was also a meat locker. Opening up further abilities to grow enough to keep up with the orders that kept coming.
The Zepedas have also been able to offer their product in many local supermarkets and stores.
“One kind of nostalgic thing for me was getting the Spring Green General Store to take our tortillas,” Heidi explained. “I grew up on an organic grass fed beef farm in the 80’s and the General Store was my parent’s first customer as well. It was a sweet full circle moment for me.”
With this growth, the couple was also able to add additional staff members to help production along.
On Monday afternoon, Julian was busy grinding the masa, while Heidi worked making a custom chip order. The two employees worked away the Mexican made press and griddle system in the back of the shop, adding efficiency to their production the couple never dreamed of in their tiny studio apartment just a few short years ago.
“When we got our first order for five dozen tortillas, it took Julian probably eight full hours to complete,” Heidi recalled. “Now, we’re able to make over 300 dozen in those same eight hours.”
The store offers limited open walk in hours for folks to stop by and grab their product directly, but they are also available in some shops locally as well. Curious taste buds are welcomed to stop by Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. to pick up fresh or frozen tortillas, masa and more.
Additionally, the Zepeda’s offer tours of their facility to groups of five or more and hope to also reach out to more farmers who may be interested in supplying various corns and resturants or shops who would like to carry the local product. Those interested can reach out to the Zepeda’s through their website at www.tortilleriazepeda.com
In the future they hope to make their Tortilleria in Lone Rock a true destination for foodies and farmers alike and continue to work educating others about their unique process and the indigenous corns of the region.Locally you can find the tortillas at Eno Farms in Spring Green, Hometown Supermarket in Spring Green, Spring Green General Store in Spring Green, Prem Meats in Spring Green, Viroqua Food Coop in Viroqua, and Schuby’s Neighhood Butcher in La Crosse. Additionally, their products area available across the state at resturants and various shops. For a complete list, see their website.