The Good Morning Silicon Valley newsletter led me to a fine bit of unusual food sampling and review at The Sneeze, part of a hilarious series of culinary experimentation from Steve, Don’t Eat It (highly recommended for the not easily offended). Ah, this was a blog post I would have been proud to have written myself, albeit my review would likely have been more favorable. I’m clearly a bigger fan of huitlacoche than Steve, but perhaps what I have dined on in restaurants is finer quality, and fresher, corn fungus than what he aquired by the can. More on huiltlacoche – 1 and 2. Here’s a photo from GourmetSleuth showing a tasty looking ear of huitlacoche on the cob.
My first experience with huitlacoche was at the long lamented Pinch-a-Pollo restaurant in Austin, Texas. The biggest draw at that restaurant was the fabulous grilled chicken that had been marinated in a yellowish-red marinade that was kept in a large rubber trash can lined with a garbage bag. Most likely, the marinade was achiote-based, though it looked as if might have been lemon-plutonium based. After taking a colleague there for the first time, he walked out the door immediately upon seeing a bright yellow, flattened, whole chicken being lifted with tongs out of the garbage can. I later lured him back and got him to taste one, and he admitted to the error of his gut instinct.
They also had a great selection of salsas that were made daily. Pinch-a-Pollo was also my first introduction to chipotles and habaneros. Just for the record, I’ve been enjoying chipotles and chipotle salsas since around 1990, long before chipotle showed up as a sauce ingredient on the menu of every large mass-produced chain restaurant in America. I’ve even made my own chipotles by smoking fresh jalapeños in a smoker in my backyard. So there. Never mind.
Pinch-a-Pollo also made a delicious salsa they called Xnipec, from the Mayan word for “nose of the dog” or “dog’s breath”. Billy at Pinch-a-Pollo translated it for me as “panting of a dog”, since your mouth would often drop open from the heat of the habaneros. “Nose of the dog” is also appropriate, as the opening of your sinuses would produce a wetness similar to that of a dog’s nose. Pinch-a-Pollo’s version of this classic salsa was made with habaneros, lime, tomatoes, and onions. Surprisingly, you could taste the rich, fruity flavor of the habanero through the intense bite of the capsaicin.
Pinch-a-Pollo also sometimes offered huitlacoche, I think served in tacos. I suspect their huitlacoche was fresh from Mexico, since they offered it only seasonally. Since then, I’ve had huitlacoche at several Mexican restaurants in the SF Bay area. Since we’re approaching the end of the corn season, now is a good time to look for it on menus.
Good huitlacoche has a very earthy flavor and a moist, mushy texture. If you have trouble with the idea of eating a fungus, I think you need to think twice before you dine on another mushroom.
The more daring restaurants will describe huitlacoche on the menu as corn fungus. The more marketing oriented spots might call it a mushroom or Mexican Truffle. I’ve yet to see it described via the literal translation from the Aztec language – “raven’s excrement”. That really seems unfair, but, hey, the Aztecs probably found it first, so we have to leave the naming rights to them.
Update 8/26/2015: I was very saddened to learn today that Billy Garcia passed away in Austin at the age of 71 on August 15, 2015. He and his family were so friendly and the food they served at their restaurant was delicious. When I lived and worked in Austin, I ate at Pinch-a-Pollo several times a month.