Tex-Mex Comes To Cuenca
This quote is one of many that have helped guide Hector Muñoz, owner of El Maix Tortilla Factory, on his journey around the world. From his childhood home in Jiménez, Mexico to the battlefields of Iraq, from security work in Qatar to university in southern Texas, from oil fields in North Dakota to the upcoming opening of his new restaurant in Cuenca, Hector’s journey has been made, as all of ours are, step by step...Poco a poco.
Hector’s adventurous spirit may have started in his youth when he learned to meet challenges head on. Hector was born in Houston, TX, but was sent to live with his grandparents in the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico. There, he lived in a dirt road town of 1,500. His grandparents raised him. Hector’s aunt, Ofelia, owned a tortilla factory just two blocks away. In that day, Hector claims it was common for women to own their own tortilla factories. In this sleepy citadel, Hector grew up with the smells of fresh pressed corn drifting through open windows. But his world was soon changed, quickly and unexpectedly.
When he was six, Hector’s mother wanted him to return to the United States to attend school in Texas. He was transplanted into a classroom of English-speaking classmates while Spanish words sat heavy on his tongue. But he quickly learned how to build bridges between his two worlds. “I felt like I was neither from here, nor there,” he explains, when recounting the tension of identities. Every summer, until he was 17, he would return to Jiménez and work with his Aunt Ofelia in the tortilla factory. He also learned secret salsa recipes from his other aunt, Rosario, an amazing cook. These methods were memorized and tucked away, waiting for the day that they would rise to the surface again.
But before he could create a business of his own, he wanted to learn more. At 18, he sought community: an army of one. Much to the chagrin of his mother, Hector enlisted in the armed services the first month of his senior year, August 2001. One month later, everyone’s world changed. He trained at Ft. Campbell and he was in Iraq for 11 months and 3 weeks. Upon his return, he was changed, same as many who fight for their countries. In Hector’s case, however, the lingering fear was accompanied by gratitude. “I was different. I appreciate things in life more now, like water and air conditioning. The simple things.”
The next few years passed in travel: briefly studying in Texas, doing security jobs in the Middle East. But his experiences hadn’t prepared him for the next frontier: North Dakota. Close to the land of “Don’t ya knows?” in Fargo, there is a town called Williston; its ground is saturated with the thick sledge of oil. Hector was paid to work and live there for nearly two years. He worked 17-hour workdays. As months passed, his resolve deepened. “I didn’t want to be working like a mule the rest of my life.”
While he saved money, the idea of adventure grew again beyond the United States. He returned to Texas and focused his attention on what was next: ten country names went into a hat. Each week, he researched a country and his research eventually revealed the way. As one of the safest countries in South America, with Cuenca as the safest city, Ecuador was the winner.
“Are you crazy?” his brothers and father pleaded. “Why would you want to move to a country where you know no one and do something, like being an owner of a business, that you haven’t even tried yet?” Even though Hector didn’t yet have a solid plan, he did have faith that things would work.
I notice that a lot of people are afraid to start; they don’t even make the first step. Even though I had a lot to learn, you do your homework, you research, and you leap. You only live once. Don’t be afraid to lose, but of course, always have in your mind that you’re gonna win.
So he arrived in Ecuador February 2015 and after a month, he found himself lounging in a pool in Vilcabamba. There, he met a man from Guayaquil who had recently been to Texas and was in love with Mexican tortillas. “You know,” the man said, “I’ve been all over but I haven’t seen a tortilla factory in all of Ecuador.” The answer had come; Hector was listening and ready.
The next months were beautiful chaoses: He found a Mexican tortilla-making machine in Texas, purchased it and paid the requisite 40% import tax, found a location, and signed countless papers. Even though he can speak Spanish fluently, the bureaucratic processes of Ecuador are not simple. Finally, El Maix (the corn), opened in August 2015. He spells El Maix with with an ‘x,’ even though the correct spelling is with a ‘z,’ for his heritage: ‘x’ for Mexico.
Though the business is small, currently comprised of three others, it is a space where employees are respected and service is guaranteed. The corn tortilla is the heart of their products. To properly make a corn tortilla, you start with the kernels. When he was investigating potential vendors, Hector had samples from local markets. To tell if corn is saturated in chemicals, you only need time and the sun. He placed the corn outside. Two days later, one of the bags had attracted a crew of inquisitive insects: organic. Two weeks later, the other bag still remained insect-free: too many chemicals. He buys his organic corn from the original vendor, who gets the kernels from the coast. Currently, El Maix goes through 80 lbs. of corn a day. He sells corn tortillas (4 in, 6 in and 8 in), tortilla chips and salsas at the store, but also to restaurants around Cuenca.
Each day, they wash the kernels in water and heap in an aunt-approved alkaline solution with mineral lime. Then, they wait. Limewater softens the corns and infuses it with vitamin B3 and amino acids. This infusion process also drastically increases the amount of iron, zinc, calcium and copper that is absorbed. After a day of soaking, they wash the kernels and grind them to dough, or "masa." The dough is aerated and sent through a tiered machine. Finally, the "masa" is flattened, sliced, baked, and then packaged by hand. As guacamole-lovers and Mexican food "aficionados" continue to wait eagerly for more chips and tortillas, Hector realized he had an opportunity to expand.
On April 15, Hector will be opening Tacos y Nachos de Maix, a fast-food taquería, close to 12 de Abril and Avenida Solano, serving up soft and hard shell tacos, tostadas, and platters of nachos. Prices range between $0.75 for individual tacos to $17.00 for a gigantic, 3-person nacho platter. It will be a place to grab a quick bite, to relax and enjoy the Mexican-American flavor, or to joyously eat late-night tacos (open until 3AM Fri. and Sat.) Inside the restaurant, there is a sign that beautifully sums up one of Hector’s beliefs: “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’ve never seen a person eating tacos who wasn’t happy.”