Ken and Seana Corona were going to end up in Savannah at some point.
Even they did not expect that ‘some point’ would come as quickly as it did.
Having discovered the Hostess City on a mid-2000s vacation, the native Angelenos bought a house in the Victorian District in 2016.
“We really loved it,” said Seana Corona. “Our plan was always to relocate here.”
After a decade-plus living in San Diego, Ken, a computer systems engineer, landed a job with a government contractor based in Charleston that landed them on the East Coast, and once he could work from anywhere, the couple moved to Savannah in January of 2022.
In a relative flash, their vacation home became their actual home.
“It just happened a little sooner because we were in Charleston and had a house here,” Seana added. “It made it an easy transition.”
Shooting for mid-February, the Coronas will open Nixtate and will sell house-made corn tortillas and authentic Mexican takeaway food from one of two new shipping container shops at Starland Yard.
Their future is now.
A PALATABLE PORTMANTEAU
Both wearing wry smiles, the Coronas took turns confessing that Nixtate is “a made-up word.”
“Nixtamal is what we call the cooked corn, and a metate is the tool traditionally used to grind the corn,” Ken explained. “We just put them together.”
The smart sobriquet encapsulates what the couple will be serving in their bespoke shipping container shop.
“We’re buying the corn, cooking the corn, milling the corn, making the masa, and thankfully, the machine does the pressing,” said Ken, referring to the singular piece of equipment that will be the physical and gustatorial centerpiece of their endeavor.
The tight menu designed for a tight production space will star antojitos and flautas, already featured in their concept’s social media subheadline.
“What we use is the phrase ‘antojitos Mexicanos’, which is very generic, but ‘antojitos’ is small bites, little delights,” explained Ken, whose family hails from Jalisco.
“In Mexico, if you say, ‘I’m going to get some antojitos’, it’s something that you go out for and pick up, something you crave,” he continued, stressing that it is not the same as the overused moniker ‘street food’.
“That pretty much wraps up everything we’re doing,” echoed Seana, seemingly unaware of her own tortilla pun.
Their flautas, the filled-and-fried longer-and-skinnier relative of taquitos, will offer a variety of fillings, including chicken, pork, a rotating meatless option, and possibly beef.
“The quality of the pork here in the south is killer. It’s phenomenal, so definitely that,” Ken guaranteed.
An order will come as it does in Central Mexico, fully garnished with a choice of house-made salsa and guacamole, sour cream, a shaved leafy green, cheese, and possibly pickled onions or chiles.
Honestly, they do not need to make anything else, though chips made from their own scratch-made corn tortillas and salsa will surely sell like hot tamales.
“On slower days, once we get acclimated and things are running smoothly, we’re going to mix in some specials,” Seana said, though the sweet side of the menu has already been slated.
“I’m really excited about the dessert,” she shared. “I’m doing churros made from scratch with two different sauces - dark chocolate and mezcal caramel - and a Mexican chocolate cookie.”
At this point, anyone in Savannah craving a taco is spoiled for choice, but Nixtate promises to offer a unique take on genuine Mexican techniques that are uncommon on this side of the country.
Before the Coronas moved from the Lowcountry to the Coastal Empire, they cut their commissary teeth at a monthly “residency” at Cutty’s in Charleston’s Elliotborough neighborhood, serving their homemade “traditional Mexican foods that were near-impossible to find here,” per Seana.
“That was a really fun place,” she said fondly of their first pop-up experience.
Their menus were “all masa-based, all from the same dough that [used] to make corn tortillas,” said Ken, describing in detail their sopes, tetelas, and gorditas.
“We couldn’t produce the tortillas in a high volume because everything was cut by hand, so we started to make other masa-based items that you don’t really find here but are very common in Mexico,” Seana said.
Together twenty-two years, the couple spoke almost in unison, starting and finishing each other’s sentence: “these were the things that we wanted to eat.”
“If I was in San Diego or with my parents, this is what we would be eating day to day,” Ken added. “Nobody had heard of anything that we were making.”
Despite their diners’ collective unfamiliarity, their food garnered a rave response: triangular tetelas, a pocket filled with not too much beans, cheese, potato, or protein, and sopes, often a celebration hand food, which Ken described as a “little masa dish filled with beans and some sort of protein and a little bit of veg on top.”
Even the machetes, so called because of their knife shape, with nopales were a hit.
“I didn’t think anybody was going to order that, and people were digging it,” Ken said of the elongated quesadillas filled with diced cactus and melty queso chihuahua.
In their relatively new hometown, the Coronas offered an online presale of pan de muerto, a traditional Día de los Muertos sweet morning bun, which customers picked up at Starland Yard. They then did a pop-up at Sobremesa the week prior to Thanksgiving, followed by a lunch at Over Yonder that featured a completely different menu.
In December, again via Instagram, they sold conchas, an enriched bread roll grooved to look like its shell eponym, and on Jan. 6, they will be baking rosca de reyes, “wreath of the kings.”
FOOD BY THE YARD
Thinking that they would be in Charleston for “a little bit longer,” the Coronas looked for a location there but could not find an apt property. They were not interested in a suburban strip mall space, citing walk-up traffic as a key component to their concept.
“We never wanted to operate a restaurant,” said Seana. “We wanted to do a take-out, to-go concept, but there was no suitable commercial space.”
Before they relocated, they were in Savannah and happened to be lunching at Starland Yard one day. Like a cinematic epiphany, they thought that this would be the ideal location.
Ken laughed. “We just cold-emailed them.” He paused. “Crickets.”
More than a month later, there came a reply: their initial missive had gone into Starland Yard’s spam box. Pila Sunderland called. He had seen the couple’s Instagram posts and researched their pop-ups. He and his partners wanted to talk.
In the fall of 2022, Sunderland and Niko Ormond came up to Cutty’s to taste the food for themselves.
“We’re cooking, and we get this order for everything,” Ken recalled with the widest smile. “They had the food. They liked it.”
“We just started talking from there,” Seana said, finishing that chapter of the story.
After the Starland Yard ownership group made the offer, the Coronas continued to drive back and forth between Charleston and Savannah and finally “move-moved” in May in 2022.
“Since then, it’s been working with them, designing the space” with Billy McIntosh of JTVS Builders, Inc.,” Ken said.
“The Starland folks have been really good at helping us gauge what volume we should be hitting and what they’re expecting for us,” Seana added.
As part of Starland Yard’s constellation, Nixtate’s production and retail will happen in the container shop on DeSoto Avenue right across from Superbloom. Less than 400 square feet, quite a bit of which will be taken up by the tortilla machine, will house a “full-blown kitchen.”
“Every inch counts,” said Seana.
“There will be a lot of corn that has to be cooked,” Ken laughed.
Understandably, daily production is still unknown, though the container’s situation facing DeSoto means that they can be open for business both during and off SY’s hours, which portends a morning bread program, building off of their online pop-ups.
“I know what I’m preparing for, but I don’t know if that will be correct,” Ken admitted.
“We’re really not going to know until we’re in it,” Seana chimed in, “and see what the volume is like.”
A HOMECOMING IN THEIR NEW HOMETOWN
Nixtate is an entirely new venture for the Coronas, even if their respective roots are clear in its origin story.
Though he was born in East Los Angeles and his parents now call Tucson home, his mother was born in a suburb of Guadalajara, and his father’s family lived further out. What he and his wife are making hearken to his familial food roots, and in particular, he praised his papá’s skills.
“My mom knows that my dad is the main cook in the house,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Nixtate marks a return to restauration for Seana, who has been “out of the professional kitchen and away from the food industry for a number of years.”
“I went to culinary school for the full program with every intention of running my own restaurant one day,” she remarked, “but I ended up going into baking and pastry.”
Day in and day out, the star of the show is going to be the authentic house-made masa that has only three ingredients: corn, water, and cal (culinary lime).
“That’s it. That’s all that should go in the tortillas,” said Ken with a shrug. “It should not have fat. It should not have preservatives.”
“Some flour tortillas from northern Mexico, they’re absolutely delicious, but they’re very labor-intensive to make,” he added.
For Nixtate’s main menu items, the corn tortillas will be longer, more ovular than circular, and those sold for regular routine will be round, approximately five inches in diameter. Taco-sized, if you will - and you will.
“We’re pretty stoked,” said Ken with a satisfied sigh. “It’s a big deal.”
Despite all of the life changes of the last couple years, the Coronas are composed. Two relocations and launching a brand new business would best the best of us.
“It was a necessary detour,” Seana reflected on their earlier-than-expected alimentary ambition, crediting Brett Bigelow from Savannah Made Simple for connecting them to food folks around town.
“Coming from San Diego, you sometimes don’t always know your neighbor,” she said.
“It was so easy to meet people here. They are just really friendly.”
Nixtate (2411 DeSoto Avenue) will be open during Starland Yard’s hours: Thursday through Saturday (noon to 10 p.m.), Sunday (noon to 9 p.m.), and Monday (5 p.m. to 10 p.m.) Grab & Go Mexican morning pastries will be offered on Saturday and Sunday to start from the DeSoto window (hours TBD). The most up-to-date announcements can be found @nixtate, @starlandyard, and at www.starlandyard.com.