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I've known about this place for years, but I have always made my own masa or brought fresh masa back from California when I went to visit family. My cousin Peter Helfrich wanted to learn how to make tamales, and we planned an ambitious campaign--to make about twelve dozen tamales, four different kinds. So we needed more masa than I could make in my Cuisinart. Peter called and spoke with the owner of Moctec, Victor Vargas, who agreed to sell us as much as we wanted and took our order.

We drove out on the Beltway and followed some fairly complicated Mapquest directions to find the place--it's at least five miles away from the restaurants in Little Mexico. In any case, we found it--a rather non-descript industrial building. The address is 3601 West St. Hyattsville, MD 20785 and the telephone number is 301-386-9090. They don't have any sort of retail sales capacity, one just enters a large office area. One of the clerical workers found our order and went to find Senor Vargas, so we could speak with him. It was a long wait, so we wandered down the hall and went through a door into the plant. Most of the workers were gone for lunch, and the equipment was not operating. But it looked well-worn and had been patched up here and there with improvised repair materials. Senor Vargas found us--he was a very pleasant, friendly man, pleased to tell us his story and show us around. There were five or six massive rectangular vats on wheels, full of still-warm nixtamal, the corn after it has been parboiled with lime. The corn is fed through a washer, which removes the gelatinous hulls by tumbling it through a spray of water. It goes through a big hose from there into the massive grinder, and is then fed into wide rollers with cutters that stamp out tortillas, which are baked or cut further and fried to make chips.

According to Senor Vargas, his is the only factory on the East Coast still making tortillas from whole corn. Everyone else uses masa harina. He said that due to the influence of the corporation that owns Maseca, the biggest brand in Mexico, that a law was passed in Mexico that commercial tortilla factories must use masa harina, not whole corn. I find this difficult to believe, but this clearly needs more research. As a result of current generations having grown accustomed to eating tortillas made from Maseca, there is less demand for fresh masa. It is less labor intensive to use corn flour, which only needs to be reconstituted with water. But this is shocking-- it's as if a law were passed in Italy mandating that all polenta sold must be instant, or that all risotto rice be turned into Minute Rice.

Victor Vargas is a Texan, who came to Washington in the mid-seventies, to work for the federal government. There were few Mexicans here at the time, and no Mexican food or products. The growth of his business in recent years has been dramatic. And somewhat overwhelming, judging by the somewhat chaotic appearance of the office and the factory.

I asked him what his favorite local Mexican restaurant is, and he said Oyamel, which buys its fresh masa from him. When we asked for his opinion of the best local Little Mexico place, so we could go there for lunch, he said that the only place he can recommend is Taqueria Tres Reyes. That the other places (like La Serenita) aren't very good (!!!)

He didn't have any fresh tortillas available to sell us, unfortunately. We bought our masa --$6 per five pound bag-- and followed his directions to get to Kenilworth Avenue and found TTR. Much more inviting than Taqueria El Charrito Caminante--it has tables and chairs. A limited menu with no platters or beans. Just tacos, tortas and soup. Peter and I both had tacos de puerco al pastor and barbacoa de chivo. The other choices were beef or chicken. The serving of meat was generous. The pork was very good--but didn't have pineapple,which I am accustomed to having in an al pastor-style dish. The goat was a bit greasy, which didn't stop us from polishing it all off. We had a rack of four salsas on the table, which were home-made, thick and spicy--two red and two different green salsas. A very good deal for $2.25 per taco.

The tamales turned out delicious-- we had four teen-aged girls to help with assembly. Four kinds: vegetarian with huitlacoche, oyster and shitake mushroom; traditional-style pork and chayote with red chile adobo; modern-style duck, shitake mushroom and papaya with mole verde; and a dessert tamale with cajeta (goat-milk dulce de leche), dates, figs and orange.

Edited by zoramargolis
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My inlaws are visiting me from Northern Virginia (Burke specifically). I made tamales the other night and my MIL has decided that she wants a lesson in how to make them. That is the easy part. The hard part is that there is no possibility of her making tamales if she has to make the masa herself, hence, I need to be able to direct her to a mercado where she can pick up a bag of masa preparada. I haven't lived in the area in 10 years, so although I'm still good at restaurants from when I travel there, I'm woefully bad at buying ingredients in DC.

In Northern California, I can't swing a dead cat without finding a great mercado, but I'd appreciate some assistance in finding one that sells masa preparada in the NoVa area. I got a suggestion on eGullet for a mercadito in Herndon, but no indication if it sold masa preparada.

Thanks in advance.

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Hey, David. Welcome to the DC area, the land of many Mexican and Central American people, but no California-style mercados or Mexican delis. Don't waste your time going to local Latin markets to look for masa preparada--this Los Angelena already did it, and it was futile. A long trip around the beltway to Moctec really is the only option in that regard, or learn to love Maseca. Hojas de elote and banana leaves are easy to find, to wrap your tamales, at least. Good luck, hermano.

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I was at Moctec last Thursday to pick up some fresh masa, and spoke to one of Victor Vargas' sons. He confirmed what I had heard two weeks earlier from Joe Raffa, the chef at Oyamel: Victor Vargas, owner of Moctec, died on July 1, 2008. According to his son, he had been riding his bicycle without a helmet, and went off the road into a ditch, where he hit his head on some rocks. He lingered in a coma for three days before finally passing away on July 1. There was no obituary in the Post. His two sons intend to keep the business going.

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I was at Moctec last Thursday to pick up some fresh masa, and spoke to one of Victor Vargas' sons. He confirmed what I had heard two weeks earlier from Joe Raffa, the chef at Oyamel: Victor Vargas, owner of Moctec, died on July 1, 2008. According to his son, he had been riding his bicycle without a helmet, and went off the road into a ditch, where he hit his head on some rocks. He lingered in a coma for three days before finally passing away on July 1. There was no obituary in the Post. His two sons intend to keep the business going.

Just FYI....Moctec's owner's last name is Vazquez not Vargas. He wil be missed! Thanks!

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