COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Iván Ruiz is frequently found hunched over the kitchen stove, using only his nose to detect whether his handmade tortillas are ripe for serving.

“I can sense it right away,” he said.

Two decades ago, Ruiz immigrated to Ohio from his hometown Guerrero on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and since then, he’s dipped his toes in managing a number of chain restaurants in the area: Chipotle, Moe’s, Piada – you name it.

Iván Ruiz, the founder of Masa Mexican Grill. (Courtesy Photo/Iván Ruiz)

But it wasn’t until the 42-year-old father of two was laid off during the pandemic that his long-held dream of opening his own restaurant officially blossomed in the form of Masa Mexican Grill, the newest vendor opening in Columbus’ East Market in the coming weeks.

“Everyone’s gonna be smelling [my food] there,” Ruiz said. “But most of all, they’re gonna be smelling the chili, and I think it’s something that people are gonna smell in the East Market – something I think is missing over there, so some more flavor over there. My chili’s going to smell everywhere.”

It’s his handmade masa tortillas, though, that Ruiz said will bring his restaurant its charm. The emphasis on tortillas carries true to an old Mexican adage designed to reflect the generations-long cultural importance of the nixtamalized corn dough: “Sin maíz no hay país,” meaning “There is no country without corn,” he said.

Ruiz learned to knead the masa and flatten it into a perfectly rounded tortilla from an early age, partially thanks to being surrounded by “too many girl cousins,” he said. Masa was made three times a day at his house, served instantly off the stove, often with rice and beans and always with salsa.

“It just made me a happy kid there at the time, so that’s what made me come out with this idea,” he said. “But here, the main focus is going to be – my passion is going to be – the homemade tortilla.”

His wife Emma said Ruiz was intentional about designing the layout of his East Market stall to highlight his prized tortillas, placing a space at the front of the register so customers can witness the dough-making process in real-time.

Handmade blue corn masa dough used in Masa Mexican Grill’s dishes. (Courtesy Photo/Iván Ruiz)

“It’s a beautiful tradition that takes a lot, so showcasing that is going to be key,” she said. 

But it’s no easy task. While in Mexico with Ruiz’ family, Emma, despite considering herself a dexterous person, couldn’t “make a tortilla by hand to save (her) life,” she said, a humbling realization when her mother-in-law whipped one together in 30 seconds.

Although Ruiz said he’s intent on sharing his menu – tacos, burritos, salsas, nachos, quesadillas and more – with a new demographic at East Market, his ultimate vision is focused on something bigger than corn tortillas: changing the way Americans think about immigrants.

His original idea for the name of Masa Mexican Grill? Salsa Illegal, he said, in a nod to his former status as an undocumented immigrant. Though Masa was his ultimate selection, Ruiz kept the name of one of his signature dishes, the Salsa Illegal. 

“Being illegal here in this country, I feel like nothing, you know, because of my status,” Ruiz said. “This country has given me everything – my family, two children, a place to live. I would like to give back to them and show them that not everything, not everything or things that are illegal are always bad.”

Ruiz received a green card in 2016 and officially became a U.S. citizen three years later, he said. But unlike the 30-45 seconds it takes him to cook a tortilla, the process of gaining citizenship sprawled across two decades of his life, from 2001 to 2019. 

During that process, Ruiz said he was passed up for a number of promotions at work. “My wings were caught because of my status,” he said. But he encouraged others with the same goal to be persistent and have a little faith because “something out there is shining.” 

“I always joke about, ‘Oh, is the American dream even real?’ That’s such an antiquated concept, right,” Emma said. “But then, on the other hand, I feel like in a lot of ways he is living it. I’ve never met anybody who works harder to meet their goals despite really typical odds.” 

Masa Mexican Grill is set to open in East Market, located at 212 Kelton Ave., in about three or four weeks. In the meantime, Ruiz said he’s working toward his goal of opening a fully-fledged restaurant.