At the start of 2020, Mawi Tortillas was a company on the move. A successful family enterprise spearheaded by chef Will Avelar, Mawi’s focus was purveying fragrant corn tortillas served in an impressive collection of New Orleans restaurants. In January they were preparing to level up from their initial Metairie location to a larger production facility in Kenner to increase capacity.
Then, well, you know what happened.
Like most businesses, the Avelars had to pivot to find their footing in this new landscape. With restaurants closed and wholesale accounts evaporating, they settled on a hybrid model. They equipped their original Metairie location with a full kitchen and retail cases, flipping it into a takeout spot and specialty food store. “We put in a flattop, stove and fryer to do lunches and hot plates,” Avelar said. “In our grocery section, we sell imported cheeses and make fresh salsa, dips and also fry chips to go along with it all.”
A visit there reveals a counter-service operation tucked into a strip mall off West Esplanade Avenue. The storefront is suffused with the delicious aroma of fried corn and tacos sizzling on a griddle. Customers queue up to purchase fresh tortillas by the pound as well as Honduran and El Salvadorian cheeses, salsa, fresh crema and more. Coupled with a strong social media presence detailing the shifting menus and hours, this new model soon proved a success. Then the introduction of the Birria Taco kicked it into overdrive.
A compulsively delicious amalgam of braised beef, garlic, melted Oaxacan cheese and corn tortilla, the Birrias are griddled on the flattop and served with a portion container of braising liquid for dunking between bites. “I just had one today. I forgot how crazy-delicious those tacos are,” Avelar said.
Per Avelar, whose roots are in El Salvador, Birria actually hails from Mexico, where it traditionally featured braised goat. “But places in LA and Houston swapped goat for beef and started putting it into tortillas with some nice melty cheese,” he said. “Then they used the braising liquid as a dipping au jus. You have the leftover stock, right, so why not make a broth out of it?” A chef by trade with fine dining cred, Avelar tailors his Birria to reflect regional tastes. “I use more tomato, bell pepper, onion, and fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro. It is also extremely heavy on the garlic. It is more approachable to people who live here as the flavors are familiar but just served in a new kind of dish,” he explained.
Along with the Birria tacos (only offered a few days a week, so check in advance) other options include a variation, Birria Quesadillas, which swap corn tortillas for flour and feature crema and pico de gallo. Pupusas are also offered – try the Mixta, with chicharrons and cheese – or the Revuelta, with everything. Interesting case items also include the Quesadilla Salvadorena. Different from the quesadilla most diners will be familiar with, this one is akin to a savory pastry flavored with Morolique, a salty, crumbly, Nicaraguan cheese.
Desserts, including Tres Leches, are provided by Pastry Chef Jeremy Fogg, who recently left Emeril’s restaurant group to open his own business Mae’s Bakeshop. Mawi’s hours are limited and the menu changes frequently; their social media feed is the best source of current info. Order ahead when possible as walk-up lines can be long and the birria tacos move fast.