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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Alambre – at Oaxaca On Wheels

The section of Santa Monica Boulevard between Barrington and Bundy in West Los Angeles has become a focal point for really good Mexican food trucks. I am usually distracted by one or the other of the two trucks that regularly park between my apartment and Oaxaca on Wheels, so it has taken me a while to get to it.

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I was impressed by the range of uniquely Oaxacan dishes, and finally had a chance to try the exotically and mysteriously named Alambre. I was fascinated for years by Vampiros, until I finally ordered them in Mazatlan one evening, and leaned they were just tacos. Good tacos, but just tacos. My fear was that I would be disappointed by Alambres, another dish I’ve seen on Mexican menus for years, but never tried. Instead, it brought back a couple of nice memories.

Some years ago, when I worked in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, we ate lunch at a favorite Chinese restaurant 2 or 3 times a week. It primarily catered to Chinese customers, and they were surprised but pleased that a group of young American men had become regulars. One reason we liked it of course, was that the pretty waitresses laughed at our jokes. Our favorite joke was giving American names to the distinctly Chinese menu items. If we ordered Chinese tacos, the knew exactly which dumplings we wanted. We also enjoyed the Chinese hamburgers and the Chinese spaghetti… You get the idea.

As I was digging in to my beautiful plate of thinly sliced beef tasajo, green peppers, onions and chorizo covered in melted Oaxacan string cheese, I found myself thinking about the cheese steaks at Pat’s in Philadelphia. As I wrapped this delicious combination in rich, warm tortillas, I realized I was eating a Mexican Hoagie.

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The truck typically parks about a block east of Bundy, and has a loyal following. I know I’ll be going back to try more of their distinctive regionalMexican dishes.

Ruben’s Tacos – Torta Cubana

West Los Angeles has its fair share of taco trucks, and 3 of them routinely stop along Santa Monica Boulevard between Bundy and Barrington. I tend to go to El Paladar Oaxaqueño, partly because it’s really, really good, and partly because it’s on the right side of the road for me when I’m going home from Santa Monica. Tonight, I decided to cross the road and try Ruben’s Tacos, a bright red and green truck with flashing lights that you just can’t miss.

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I was going to go for the huarache, but just in the nick of time, spotted a picture of an outlandish-looking sandwich called the torta cubana. I have a weakness for tortas cubanas.

Whenever the Mexicans want to create an absolutely insane sandwich, for some reason I have never learned, they blame it on the Cubans. I’ve had many in my time, and each one seems just a little crazier than the last.

The Torta Cubana at Ruben’s takes the cake… and cake is just about the only thing they didn’t throw into the mix. I wasn’t surprised by the breaded beef cutlet, the “pastor” marinated pork, the sliced ham, refried beans, avocado, tomato, grilled hot dog or fried egg. I was surprised, though by the mayonnaise, pickle and yes… pineapple.

I felt like the enormously obese customer in the Monty Python sketch who orders everything on the menu, then explodes at the end.

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It was a great sandwich, and I know I’ll be returning to do it again… just as soon as I stop feeling guilty about this one.

The truck parks on Santa Monica Boulevard at Westgate. It seems to be there every evening.

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.

Tacos Punta Cabras – Scallop Tacos

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With the grandfathered exception of The Border Grill, I never expected to find serious tacos in Santa Monica. Out for a walk on Santa Monica Boulevard, though, I had a feeling about this small, casual spot, and decided to give it a try. It also helped that I was hungry at the time.

The menu is very specialized, in the form of an order sheet with boxes to check. Tacos are limited to fish, scallop, shrimp and tofu. There are also seafood cocktails and tostadas. And that’s kind of it. They give special consideration to gluten and nut allergies.

I went for a fish taco and a scallop taco. There were no surprises when they arrived, basically baja style tacos with fried fish and scallops, shredded cabbage and a dash of crema on soft tortillas. The surprise came when I took my first bite. Perfectly cooked, beautifully balanced flavors and wonderful textures, these aren’t the quick comfort food we’ve come to expect of tacos…

This is serious food!

Here’s the address: 2311 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Phone: (310) 917-2244

Mateo’s Ice Cream and Fruit Bars – Mezcal Ice Cream

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Whenever I’m in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, I try to make a stop at Mateo’s. It’s a colorful, friendly place that makes me feel happy the moment I walk in, and they have the most interesting assortment of ice cream flavors I’ve ever seen.

There are all sorts of exotic flavors I’ve only encountered in Mexico, including Mamey, Passion Fruit (called Granadilla here), Guayaba, Guanabana, etc. I recently tried the Mezcal flavor, something I expected to be a weird novelty, but was delighted with the flavor. I was feeling adventurous, so I tried it with a scoop of Rompope flavor, the Mexican version of eggnog. Again, I thought it was going to be a bizarre combination, but the flavors blended perfectly.

I’m reluctant to admit that I’ve been so involved with trying all the ice cream flavors that I have never tasted the beautiful selection of paletas, or popsicles. The good news is that I find myself in the area regularly, and will certainly get around to them.

They have various locations, but this one is at 1250 South Vermont, in a shopping center at the corner of Pico.

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Guillermo Arriaga – Un dulce olor a muerte (A Sweet Scent of Death)

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Several years ago, I saw the film version of Un dulce olor a muerte at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival. Starring a young Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), it was oddly cast with actors from a wide variety of countries, and an equally odd conglomeration of accents. While it was incongruous to have such an international cast in a rural Mexican locale, the story was compelling and wonderfully executed, from a screenplay adapted by Arriaga from his novel.

We know Guillermo Arriaga from his writing of such films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, but he has written a series of powerful novels, and wrote and directed the tragically overlooked film “The Burning Plain” starring Charlize Theron and (yes) Jennifer Lawrence. Un dulce amor a muerte is Arriaga’s first novel.

A young man is overcome with a variety of emotions when finds the naked body of a pretty girl in a field outside the village. Although he has only seen her a few times before, the villagers jump to the conclusion that she was his girlfriend, and Ramón is too distraught to correct them. Compounding the confusion, the girl’s family gives him her diaries, and he comes to believe that he is the secret lover she wrote about.

Meanwhile, the villagers and the police focus on who to blame for the murder. There is a surprising lack of interest in actually solving the crime, so it doesn’t take too many self-serving lies and exaggerations to settle on a guilty suspect. Nor does it take long to agree on the justice to be exacted, and that Ramón should be the instrument of that justice.

The tension mounts throughout the entire novel, as a headlong collision between an innocent man and a naive village becomes increasingly inevitable. Only a handful of people are in a position to change the course of events, but each has his or her reasons to stay silent. It comes down to the very last page to see the final outcome.

A tightly written, suspenseful story filled with well-realized characters.

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Una mañana muy temprano, Ramón descubre el cadáver de Adela en unos campos de avena cerca de Loma Grande. Ramón apenas había visto a Adela en un par de ocasiones, pero en el mismo instante en el que el muchacho cubre con su camisa el cuerpo desnudo de la muerta, comienza a difundirse el rumor de que Adela era su novia. A partir de ese momento, los hechos se irán desencadenando irremediablemente y Ramón se verá obligado a vengar la muerte de la joven. Su corazón es quien le obliga actuar, su corazón y un pueblo entero que se convierte en el protagonista de la novela, en el creador de una ofensa y de una venganza inevitable. Un dulce olor a muerte es una novela fascinante en que la pasión y el orgullo dictan cada una de las decisiones de los personajes, la venganza se convierte en destino y la verdad se muestra en su faceta más ambigua y demoledora.