A Las Vegas Chef Is Building a Future on Centuries of Mexican Tradition
House-ground masa is the key to the restaurant Milpa and Chef DJ Flores’ new tortilleria to come.
Milpa is a business built from the ground up, kernel by kernel. DJ Flores opened his restaurant at the height of the pandemic in early 2021, rolling the dice on a concept based on quality ingredients and stone-ground heirloom corn tortillas.
It wasn't exactly the plan all along. Flores was happy working as an executive sous chef at Lorena Garcia's Chica, a restaurant he helped open at the Venetian in 2017. He came down with COVID in 2020, took some time off, and was then let go–a decision he blames on a change in management. After 20 years of working on the Strip, Flores made a spur-of-the-moment commitment to strike out on his own.
"I found this little spot. It was cheap. It was going for a sale price." he remembers. "I was like, you know what? Let me ask my friends, my family… I'll take out some money and put it into the restaurant."
Flores quietly unveiled Milpa in a crowded strip mall on the corner of Flamingo Road and Durango Drive, an area that's busy, but doesn't have much of an identity. It's not quite Summerlin, not quite Spring Valley, and not in the middle of an up-and-coming culinary scene. If you need to visit the dentist, get your nails done next door, and then have your smog checked across the street, you might be familiar with the intersection.
"I really thought Milpa was going to close within a year," Flores remembers. "It was just super slow. But I knew my restaurant was totally different, totally against the grain."
Milpa is set up as a fast-casual restaurant with a bright, minimalist space, and the ethos is ingredient-driven. Finally, a year after opening, sales began to pick up. The restaurant became a culinary destination that thrived on word of mouth.
Flores set himself apart with a key ingredient: corn, sourcing heirloom crops from small-production farmers in Oaxaca, the Yucatán, and other Mexican regions. The vegetable arrives in different colors–red, yellow, purple, and blue–with subtle nuances of flavor and starch content in each.
The preparation is simple, but requires strict attention to detail. Flores is careful not to overcook the corn, letting it boil and steep at just the right time and temperature for nixtamalization. The next day, the kernels are rinsed and ground with volcanic stone; a modern take on a traditional process that dates back hundreds of years to Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, producing a fine powder called masa that's incredibly versatile in Mexican recipes. "We don't add any additives. We don't add any preservatives," Flores says. "The only preservative we use is salt, and we grind every day."
Come early for breakfast and taste the flavor in an order of chilaquiles or blue pinola pancakes. Arrive later in the day for the stuffed masa triangles called tetelas, seasonal tamales, or tacos, including a best-selling vegan option with barbacoa-style oyster mushrooms. Warm up with a cup of the chocolate masa drink champurrado and ask about the latest specials. You may even see the savory corn fungus huitlacoche show up in quesadillas.
Milpa is a Spanish term that literally means cornfield but also refers to a Mesoamaerican system of crop rotation, farming, and life. So the restaurant’s name reflects an appreciation for not only corn, but combinations of produce that work together in their series of vegetable-forward bowls. "You need to plant the squash and beans right next to your corn to help each other grow," Flores says about the farming process. "We use different types of grains and ingredients, and you'll see that abundantly in the menu."
Flores now sells his masa to fellow Las Vegas restaurants like Border Grill, Vesta Coffee, Mijo Modern Mexican at the new Durango resort, and in a full circle moment, Chica, the same restaurant that let him go just a few short years ago.
Business is so good, Flores is gearing up for the 2024 opening of a new concept, Buen Dia Tortilleria, which will have greater space to accommodate wholesale orders as well as a storefront for the general public. Customers will be able to buy masa themselves as well as house-made chips, quesadillas, and Mexican gourmet coffee, which the chef says is underrepresented in Las Vegas.
Flores' appreciation for Mexican flavors is based on his own heritage, dating back to when his mother (a Puebla-born immigrant) prepared meals at home. The Vegas native worked a Kmart pizza counter as a teenager, lighting the spark for what would become a career in the food business. He scored kitchen jobs at "probably every Mexican restaurant on the Strip" to get greater acquainted with the food connected to his background, but it wasn't until he accepted an internship south of the border at Quintonil, one of the best restaurants in Mexico City, that he fully realized the possibilities within the cuisine.
The chef's unique background and unconventional journey helped shape and inspire a focused vision for Milpa, which has grown from two to 10 employees in less than three years. While initially reluctant about the location, Flores now believes, looking back, his modest West Valley address ultimately worked to his advantage. "Believe it or not, this little pocket turned out to be a good area," he says. "It's a destination now. My customers feel comfortable here."