City Paper is not for tourists
The Dish: Worm salt
Where to Get It: El Camino; 108 Rhode Island Ave. NW; (202) 847-0419; elcaminodc.com
Price: $2 with any mezcal
What It Is: The worm salt—also known as sal de gusano—is served here with orange slices as a traditional Oaxacan accompaniment to mezcal. You dip the orange slices in the salt, take a sip of mezcal, then take a bite of salty orange slice. Beverage Director Paul Challan, who was born in Mexico, uses the Gran Mitla brand of worm salts, one of just a few available in the U.S. For the concoction, agave worms (technically a caterpillar called aegiale hesperiaris) are toasted and ground, then blended with sea salt and costeño chiles, a mild dried pepper that adds more depth than heat.
What It Tastes Like: I’d love to report that this doesn’t taste half as bad as it sounds, but that’s not quite the case. The saltiness level is turned up to 11, perhaps thanks to Gran Mitla’s choice of using sea salt, and the worms add an overwhelming smokiness that intensify rather than balance the smokiness of the mezcal. I agree with Challan’s descriptor of “earthy fruitiness,” but not in a good way. Curious to see what others thought, I shared our pile of caterpillar-spiked salt with some adventurous drinkers at the bar. One taste was enough for each of them.
The Story: Gran Mitla claims that it was “considered a delicacy consumed only by Aztec emperors.” Challan says about one in 10 mezcal drinkers order it at El Camino, and many of them know enough about the spirit that they’re familiar with the tradition. But he admits that the brand he buys is more intense than versions he’s sampled in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, there just aren’t a lot of companies exporting worm salt, so his choice in purveyors is limited. Like me, he prefers his mezcal neat—at least whenever he’s north of the border.
Photo courtesy El Camino