I remember my first taste of smut. Not the Playboy-Hustler kind, but corn smut: a plant disease in which a temperamental fungus turns regular ears of corn into bulbously deformed, oblong creatures like something out of a black-and-white Cold War horror film. The resulting earthy, spongy kernels are known as huitlacoche. The flavor is funky as hell, and it's a delicacy in Mexico.
Long before I'd set foot in Mexico, I was a teenager with a fake ID, traipsing up and down Sunset Boulevard with my reckless friends, enjoying the Wednesday night crawl from now-shuttered Barragan's to the pre-remodel Gold Room to then-punk-as-fuck Little Joy. One night when the drinking was done, we stumbled back toward the car and noticed a new vendor hanging out on the corner of Echo Park Boulevard, next to our usual bacon-wrapped-hot-dog cart. We decided to try something new to soak it all up: blue corn quesadillas filled with huitlacoche.
Of course, back then we didn't call it huitlacoche. We didn't call it anything. It was just the goopy, black-looking stuff we pointed to that the ever-so-patient Mexican lady would scoop out of a repurposed plastic mayonnaise jar and throw onto a hand-patted, bruise-blue tortilla on her sidewalk grill. We paid her $3 and inhaled the quesadilla on the spot, oohing and aahing at the color of the tortilla but giving little thought to the smut within.
A decade later and it's August again — huitlacoche season, which means the odd fungus is back in the news. NPR wrote this week about how chefs in the South are no longer viewing corn smut as a defect but as an ingredient worth incorporating into menus. "Scourge No More" read the headline, one obviously meant to appeal to Americans who find it hard to understand why anyone would eat what is essentially spoiled food.
But in Oaxaca and Mexico City, huitlacoche has never been a scourge. It's an integral part of the cuisine. And in Los Angeles, which boasts more Mexican restaurants than most cities in Mexico, it may not be mainstream, but there are always ways to get your huitlacoche on.
The quesadilla lady in Echo Park, who provided me with my first taste, continues to be a favorite, though her prices have gone up to $4 per quesadilla (quesadillas being the traditional and preferred mode of huitlacoche delivery). Famed Oaxacan restaurant Guelagetza offers a quesadilla de huitlacoche for $10.95 (called an empanada de maiz on the menu), and on weekends you can get huitlacoche quesadillas from a stand that posts up on the sidewalk outside of El Huarache Azteca in Highland Park.
Colonia Taco Lounge in La Puente has long offered huitlacoche as an option on its diverse menu of gourmet tacos, though the description mentions it as "mushrooms," El Condor in Silver Lake has huitlacoche, which you can get in a taco or a quesadilla, and Rocio Camacho, the mole goddess at Rocio's Mexican Kitchen, makes a rich, almost creamy mole that's musky with huitlacoche. For a while, CaCao Mexicatessan in Eagle Rock offered huitlacoche, too, but they were getting it fresh from one of the nation's only growers, a man in Florida whose supply was too inconsistent to keep it on the menu. It's since been replaced with a regular mushroom option.
There's a proliferation of huitlacoche lately at Mercado Olympic, downtown's makeshift party-supply-store-slash-swap-meet, which has been raided so many times for its illegal food vendors that you'd think the cops are just looking for a free meal. Even in the wake of the raids — in which most of the food carts were hauled off, still steaming, in a truck — you can stroll down Olympic Boulevard during its food-crazy weekend hours and see firsthand that huitlacoche has never been a scourge here.
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SHOW ME HOW
On a recent visit, there were no fewer than seven puestos offering everything from pupusas to quesadillas to huaraches to tacos. In metal serving tins surrounding the griddle were a dizzying number of options for fillings: chicken tinga, cecina, chicharron verde, nopal, pastor con papas, chorizo con papas, ground beef, calabacitas and — wait for it — huitlacoche. Those serving up the corn smut said they use a canned version that's imported from Mexico and available year-round. They also expressed surprise that huitlacoche isn't more widely available in L.A.
Unlike carne asada, al pastor and pollo, huitlacoche can be a hard sell. Maybe it's because it looks a bit like chunky used motor oil, or maybe it's because once people ask what it is, there's no real answer that can make it sound appetizing.
You won't easily find it on any of the taco trucks around town, and only a few taco stands (Bill Esparza found a great one on Slauson in South L.A.) bother with it. But just close your eyes and take that crucial first taste (perhaps after a few adult beverages at a dive bar), and huitlacoche no doubt will win over even the staunchest opponent of smut.