KC James Beard Award winner talks growing up in Sonora, future plans and her perfect day in KC.

Photography by Barrett Emke.

For many who live in the Northern regions of Mexico like Sonora, Chihuahua or Coahuila, a vacation usually means heading north and into the U.S. But that wasn’t the case for KC’s Yoli Tortilleria owner and James Beard Award winner Marissa Gencarelli’s family. They would venture south.

While her friends were traveling to Disneyland, Marissa was heading further into Mexico. Gencarelli’s mom, a professor, and father, whom Marissa describes as a “chubby lawyer,” had the summers off, so they would pack Marissa and her two older brothers into the family’s Nissan and travel into Mexico’s belly and all the way to its tail end, Yucatan. The road trips—air conditioning and tech screens not included—were regularly interrupted when her father, who “knew every food stand,” would stop to indulge at one of his favorites. 

 “You don’t realize how lucky you are that from a very young age, you are getting exposed to all the diversity of Mexico,” Marissa says. 

Growing up on the Sonoran coast, it wasn’t uncommon for her father to bring home whole octopus or marlin and dig a hole in their yard to smoke the fish underground. “I thought it was normal,” the West Side shop owner says.

With tortillerias on every neighborhood corner, smooth quality masa was bountiful, and Marissa’s family would often buy it to make tortillas at home. The process of nixtamalization—grinding down dried corn, or maize, into masa—was a process Marissa mastered much later in life when trying to replicate the tortillas of her childhood. It’s also a process that ultimately earned her shop national recognition in June.

Marissa attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she would eventually meet her husband, Mark Gencarelli. They relocated to KC when Marissa got a job at Cerner as a general manager. Together, they would diligently test masa recipes at home, trying to make tortillas like the ones Marissa grew up with in Sonora. 

What began as the couple’s passionate hobby has, within the span of five years, turned into an award-winning storefront that ships nationwide. The prestigious James Beard awards (the Oscars of the food industry) were held in Chicago the first week of June, and the Gencarelli’s Yoli Tortilleria won in the first-time-ever category of Outstanding Bakery. Marissa took to the stage, gave a teary-eyed speech and thanked KC for helping the tortilleria “honor the very humble tortilla.”

Yoli’s soft, delectable stone-ground corn tortillas and Sonoran-style flour tortillas are found in grocery stores and restaurants around the metro, and the Gencarellis have plans to expand their business.

Yoli’s West Side shop is in the works to expand to a ten-seat “small little joint kind of like what you would find in Mexico,” Marissa says. Expected to open in the fall, the casual tortilleria’s breakfast and lunch menu will have only two tacos on the menu to start. The rest of the menu will focus on the many ways masa can be experienced beyond “the humble tortilla.”  

Perfect Day

Breakfast: Happy Gillis is probably my favorite. I love their biscuits and gravy—classic sausage and always a side of bacon. If I go there on a Sunday, I always get a bloody mary. It’s a very good, strong bloody mary they serve there.

Hiking: We love hiking with the whole family at Shawnee Mission Park. We always pack our bikes, but if I’m by myself, I might run the trails. You’re far in the woods but also super close to water. Sometimes we go to the dog park with our two very large dogs, but we trick them not to go towards the lake. Once they see water, it’s over. 

Dinner: As a family, we love to go to Earl’s Premier. We keep it super casual and sit at the bar, even the kids. They’ll get Shirley Temples, we’ll get beers. Now that the kids like oysters, we’ll order two dozen oysters to start. Growing up by the Gulf of California, I love raw seafood, so I’ll order anything from their crudo to crab legs. 

Dessert: Anything that Helen from Town Co. does, I love. I just went and she had a miso cake that was delicious. A lot of people don’t know that she’s a wiz at making ice cream. If you ever want to try them, they’re incredible. She made a beautiful lemon sorbet and I felt like I was in Italy. It was spectacular.

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