Sunday, January 11, 2009

Blue magic

Just south of the intersection of Echo Park and Sunset Boulevards, against a low concrete wall in front of a city parking lot, you might see a blue umbrella and a cluster of people.

There's a lot of street food sold in this neighborhood. On the southeast corner of Sunset and Echo Park, someone displays whole fruit stacked on milk crates on the sidewalk. On the northwest corner, across Sunset, a cart displays cut fruit, and a woman sells tostadas.

If you go around the corner on Logan Street, beneath the dense shade of fig trees, there's a taco trailer - not a truck, a trailer pulled by a full-size pickup - and people sit on upturned milk crates to eat.

But go through the parking lot, past the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and head for the blue umbrella.

Two vendors set up shop here. One is a man cooking bacon dogs on a grill made out of a supermarket shopping cart. The other vendor is the reason we're here.
She wears a ball cap and an apron. She reaches into a plastic tub for a handful of blue-corn masa, and pats it between her hands into a flattened oval, then lays it on the hot propane-fired comal before her. She waits while it sputters lightly, then, using her fingers, she deftly flips it over to the other side. She sprinkles a handful of white Oaxacan cheese onto the seared dough, and then adds a spoonful of filling.

The first time I came here, the waiting crowd included three young men, and I wasn't sure where the line ended. One guy had a tiny terrier zipped into his sweatshirt. The dog was so cute I asked if I could take his picture, and what his name was.

"Tinker," he said. The little dog looked at me with bright eyes. A little kid came over to pet the dog.

The cocinera looked inquiringly at me. "What kind of fillings do you have?" I asked her.

"Pollo, flor de calabaza, mushroom, chorizo, chicharrones...."

That day I ordered two, one with squash blossoms and one with chorizo.
You can see them cooking here - the folded-over one has the chorizo and potato filling; the open-faced one has the squash blossom vegetable filling. After the cook patted them out and spread the filling, she served the guy with the dog his order.

"What kind did you get?" I asked the guy with the dog. "Huitlacoche," he said.

That was when I knew I had to come back here and bring [The Man I Love.]

If you don't already know what huitlacoche is, you might be taken aback at the most commonly heard translation. Huitlacoche, or Quitlachoche, is called "corn smut" in English. Not very nice sounding. It's a fungus that grows on corn, infecting the kernels, swelling and blackening them. It's considered a blight by American corn farmers, and until recently the USDA has actively tried to wipe it out on this side of the border.

But we human beings are peculiar - some of us find fungus delicious! Huitlacoche has a strong, woodsy taste like wild mushrooms, with a whiff of funk like blue cheese or even truffles.

Huitlacoche is used in Mexican cooking. In the American Southwest, the Zuni and Hopi people enjoy it. The Aztecs liked it so much they deliberately tried to induce it in corn. You can find it in some of the more high-end Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, the ones celebrated in food magazines. The noted food writer James Beard tried to promote huitlacoche, even renaming it "Mexican truffles" in an attempt to make it sound more appetizing.

So now, on my second visit, I ask the cocinera for a quesadilla with huitlacoche. [The Man I Love] opts for the chorizo and potato.

While she cooks our quesadillas, people stop by and chat. Someone jokes about losing a job or starting a job - it's hard to follow the rapid Spanish and the laughter. A couple of ladies come by, eating paletas, or frozen fruit bars, and stay to talk. The cocinera uses her bare hands to fix the food, but when we pay, she puts a plastic bag on her hand to handle the money. Her assistant, a young man, takes the bills from her gloved hand and makes our change. Our quesadillas cost us $3 each.

At the front of the cart, you can scoop up chopped onions and cilantro, pickled red onion, nopales, and choose from two salsas. Grab a napkin from the package tied on the cart, and buy a Coke from a tub full of ice by the side.

We take our paper plates into the parking lot, where the concrete base of a streetlight makes the perfect table to enjoy our quesadillas. The filling is very juicy, so I tip a little of the liquid on the ground so it won't make the tortilla soggy.
The huitlacoche is an almost alarming deep black color, but the filling is more of a mixture of vegetables; the huitlacoche with chopped onion and yellow corn kernels and probably some chile, too. By the time I'm done my mouth is tingling fiercely. As anticipated, the taste is delicious - earthy, funky and complex, the white Oaxacan cheese a perfect foil for it. Pickled nopales strips and some pickled red onion that gave a refreshing, crunchy contrast.
[The Man I Love] enjoys his papas and chorizo quesadilla. The red oil of the chile in the sausage permeates the soft potatoes, coloring them orange.

I'm standing in a parking lot, balancing a paper plate on the base of a streetlight, and having one of the most memorable culinary experiences of my life.

This is why I love living in Los Angeles.


barbara said...

This is absolutely beautiful, the food, the way you write about it, the photos.

You really understand what makes Los Angeles special. Thank you for your blog.

CaShThoMa said...

Sounds delicious the way you describe this most unusual filling. Mmmmmm.

shrink on the couch said...

This is the 3rd time I've heard about Huitlacoche and every time it's been on a blog. I haven't been inclined to try it til I read yours. I'm guessing I can find it locally.

Queenly Things said...

You are bringing tears to my eyes. I need a Mexican fix pronto!!

Woman in a Window said...

Love it, love the imagery of the people and the dog and the crates, her touching the food with her handles, yet handling the money with bagged fingers. Wonderful.

I am a Tornado ~ proven fact! said...

WOW! I am so very hungry right now ... and NOTHING ... will do but a fresh tortilla - from that CART!

Perfect lunch-time read. It is lunch in the burgh right now. Freezing and lunch time. Snowing and Freezing and lunch time.

I think it's time for me to retire!

You got a guest room?

Gary's third pottery blog said...

I have dogs but maybe I need a pocket sized terrier too...

Shirl said...

Hello, I'm still making my pink sat. visits. Thank you so much for stopping by. Love your pink this week and LA looks like a great place. Food looks yummy!
Have a great week.
Shirls Rose Cottage

JCK said...

And you are so good at fully loving Los Angeles. Exploring it like noone else!

Unknown said...

Beautifully written story! It makes me hungry! : ) What a fun place! Full of so much culture and diversity.

dkuroiwa said...

I think that because of this particular post, I'm more homesick now than ever!!'s not just the Mexican food and's just all that "other culture" kind of thing happening pretty much anywhere you go in America....I miss that. I love the Japanese culture, but sometimes....something different for a bit would be nice!!
(And that incredibly delicious looking food would be oh so very wonderful!!!)