Craving Huitlacoche… Again

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One of the more fascinating and addictive Mexican foods is an acquired taste, perhaps because of its dreadful name in english, and its seriously unappealing appearance.

It’s called Corn Smut in english. Or Devil’s Corn. Not very appetizing, until you hear it called Mexican Truffle, or Mexican Caviar. Those names come from people who understand the earthy, fungus flavor with just an underlying hint of corn. The flavor is brought out especially well when served with a warm hand-made tortilla, and a sprinkling of cheese.

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Corn smut is considered a disease by American farmers, and they take elaborate pains to eradicate it. Mexicans have been eating it at least since Aztec days, and grow it specifically for consumption.

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I had never paid much attention to huitlacoche – it’s a subtle flavor, and can get lost in the company of some of the bolder Mexican dishes. But then I read Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León’s wonderful novel Policia de Ciudad Juarez. A gritty “novela negra” with liberal doses of satire, its main character Comandante Amarillo is addicted to huitlacoche, but finds it hard to come by in Ciudad Juarez. Once I focused on it, I became a bit of an addict myself.

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Fortunately, I live in Los Angeles, where huitlacoche is easily available. Today’s travels took me to the Olympic Mercado east of downtown, where food stands pop up on weekends.

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Huitlacoche – Aquí es Texcoco and Olympic Mercado

I wonder how many gringos had huitlacoche for both lunch and dinner yesterday? Well, I did.

Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and the unappetizing english translation is corn smut. It has a rich mushroomy, corny sort of flavor that gives a delicious earthy undertone to other foods, particularly tortillas and cheese, in my experience.

I’ve heard it called Mexican caviar, and although I had tried it a few times before, I really started to focus on it after reading the wonderful novel Policía de Ciudad Juárez by Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León. His main character is fascinated amost to point of obsession with huitlacoche, and orders it wherever he can find it.

I had two entirely different experiences with huitlacoche yesterday.

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The first was at a food stand in the Olympic Mercado, where Los Angeles vendors set up shop on Saturdays. I had a huarache de huitlacoche. It is called a huarache because the masa is formed in the shape of a sandal, like a super-thick tortilla. (No, I haven’t yet figured out the difference between a huarache and a chancla, which translates a flip-flop sandal) The corn aspects of the huitlacoche flavor blended beautifully with the toasted corn flavor of the huarache, and they were balanced nicely by the melted cheese.

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In the evening, I drove out to Bell Gardens, near Commerce, to Aquí es Texcoco for their spectacular roast lamb. I’ll tell you about that in another post, but right now, you need to know about the “quesataco” de huitlacoche.

In one of the most unusual presentations I’ve ever seen, they brought out sort of a quesadilla that didn’t have a tortilla wrapper, but rather crunchy, toasted cheese instead. Filled with melted white cheese and huitlacoche, it was one of the most delicious things I’ve put in my mouth this year. Interestingly, I found that taking a bite of tortilla with it brought out the flavor of the cheese and the huitlacoche even more.

Here’s the website for Aquí es Texcoco: http://www.aquiestexcoco.com/

And the Olympic Mercado is where it always is – on Olympic Boulevard east of the fashion district.

Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Pollo

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Walking through the Olympic Mercado in downtown Los Angeles, I was drawn to the stand where they were making quesadillas. When I saw the big dish of huitlacoche, I was powerless, and placed my order.

Huitlacoche seems to be translated as “corn smut”, but it’s a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and has a complex, musky flavor of corn and… well, fungus. Mexicans are divided on the subject, but I tend to line up with those who love it with a passion.

Some braised chicken, grilled onions and shredded nopal on a hot, cheesy tortilla rounded out the experience, and I was a happy guy.

Blue Corn Quesadilla – Mercado Olympic – Downtown Los Angeles

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Olympic Boulevard becomes a thriving marketplace on Saturdays and Sundays. All sorts of things are on sale, from dried chiles to piñatas, but the food stands are what attracted me this weekend.

I’ve seen blue corn tortillas and quesadillas in Mexico, but never had the chance to try them, so this was my opportunity. This was a family-run operation, with mom doing the cooking, and the kids keeping the operation running smoothly.The choices were rather exotic, including pig’s blood and squash flowers, but I was a little more conservative, ordering my quesadilla with shredded cheese, cecina (paper-thin slices of marinated beef) and huitlacoche, the highly-prized corn fungus delicacy. Mom made the tortilla from blue masa and tossed it right onto the grill, and when it was done, it was hot enough to hurt my fingers. The depth of flavor of the heavy blue tortilla was remarkable, the toasted corn flavor balancing the fruity corn fungus flavor of the huitlacoche. A dash of red salsa and a grilled green onion made it a perfect meal.

A Delicious Lesson in Moles – La Huasteca, Lynwood. Los Angeles

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They went out of their way to be sure I had a memorable meal at La Huasteca. I was having such a great time eating my pork chops with mole mancha manteles (appropriately named “tablecloth stainer”) that manager Irma Vera brought me samples of the other moles available on the menu. Clockwise from the upper left:

Mole de los dioses (mole of the gods) is made from the highly prized delicacy huitlacoche. Only because I knew what it was, a fungus that grows on the corn plant, I was able to identify flavors of both mushrooms and corn, but the taste is absolutely unique and wonderful.

Mole de tamarindo, which they serve with duck, had layer upon layer of flavor that transformed from sweet to chile to smoky hot… Beautiful.

Mole poblano, possibly the most famous mole, can be a bit sweet for my taste in some places, but this one tasted like smooth chocolaty smoke, with a hot, spicy finish. A welcome variation.

Red pipián and green pipián. I think the world is divided 50/50 on the subject, but I think the red sauce better suits the toasty flavor of the pumpkin seeds. Both were beautifully executed.

Meanwhile, the mole mancha manteles that was on my plate, and not in this picture, surprised me with a vague resemblance to some of the very best barbecue sauces in Kansas City. Rich and spicy, with a reddish brown color, it outdid anything from the midwest in complexity and layers of flavor, while not overpowering the pork chops. It did, however, have the same satisfying comfort that we find in the best barbecue.

Here’s the website: http://lahuasteca.com/