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.

YXTA – Gringas al Pastor

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I’ve passed by YXTA a number of times, but never had the opportunity to try it. I was curious, though, for two reasons. First, how in heck do you pronounce YXTA? Well, you do pronounce the X, so it sounds like “eeks-ta.” Second, what is an attractive, upscale-looking restaurant doing in that dreary stretch of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by warehouses, distributors and factories? The answer to that is now a moot point, because YXTA is worth a trip, no matter where it’s located.

I was invited to a preview of AltaMed’s annual fund-raiser East L.A. Meets Napa, and we made a stop at YXTA for their wonderful tacos, and a sampling of Trujillo wines. The US vs Belgium World Cup game was playing on the TVs as we arrived, which fit perfectly with the casual restaurant/bar atmosphere, and added to the fun mood of the outing. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long enough to see the disappointing outcome of the game.

I’ve seen Gringas on menus in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen them this side of the border. As we all know, a gringa in Latin America is an American, or english-speaking woman. In food parlance, though, it is a special type of taco. Wikipedia says the name may come from the dark spots on the grilled tortilla that resemble the freckles on a gringa’s skin.

The gringas at YXTA were beautifully roasted marinated pork (pastor), served on a flour tortilla with lots of gooey melted cheese, onions, cilantro, chile de arbol salsa and avocado salsa. The treatment was sort of like a quesadilla, but it packed a flavor punch way beyond any quesadilla I’ve ever been served – and that includes the Olympic Mercado where all the street vendors appear on Saturdays, not that far from YXTA.

I’m looking forward to seeing what YXTA is serving at the July 18 East L.A. Meets Napa main event. I’ll be delighted if they go with the Gringas, but whatever they decide, I know I’ll be a happy guy.

Here’s the website: http://yxta.net/

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.

Mango with Chamoy

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So, how do you get 20 Mexicans at an outdoor market to stop and stare at you with expectant smiles on their faces? Order your sliced mango with chamoy.

I’m certain I once had an ice cream in Mexico City with chamoy, and it was sweet and tasty. But the one I had at the Olympic Mercado in Los Angeles came as a big surprise. It turns out to be plums or apricots pickled in salt and vinegar that Mexicans use to enhance the flavor of mangoes and other fruits. In this case, it was served very warm, and heavily laced with dried chile.

With so many amused faces watching me, I decided to take a big sip of the chamoy through the straw that came with it. Unwilling to admit my shock and surprise, I smiled and declared it to be “muy interesante.” I guess it was pretty interesting, but I couldn’t eat more than a few bites, and threw it away once I was out of sight.

I suspect this was just a bad introduction, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for another opportunity to try this popular delicacy.