“What is this stuff?” my somewhat startled dining companion whispers across our table at Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan. I’m sure it’s a common question for those who order dishes containing huitlacoche, or corn smut, a rather questionable-looking byproduct of disease-ridden maize that’s been eaten since the days of the Mayans and Aztecs.
The stuff isn’t winning any beauty contests; in fact, it’s a bit grotesque. The corn kernels are engorged and distorted as a result of the disease, which replaces healthy kernels with large tumors made of fungal threads not unlike those of a mushroom. The resulting product is a dark blue-black gunk, which might explain why the Mayans called it the “excrement of the gods.”
Fortunately, it tastes better than it looks. Casa Oaxaca serves two items with the funky ingredient. The first is the kekas starter of three small blue corn quesadillas, one of which is filled with huitlacoche. I was surprised by its mild, earthy flavor, which complemented the lingering sweetness of the corn. It had a soft, slightly spongy texture that gave the dish substance. Well seasoned, it paired nicely with the nutty taste of the blue corn tortillas, and was decidedly un-excrement-like.
The second huitlacoche dish, an appetizer of ravioli in a squash blossom cream sauce, was less successful. Skipping over the obvious question—what’s ravioli doing on a Mexican restaurant’s menu?—the dough is bready, almost like a Hungarian dumpling, and the soupy cream sauce entirely floods the plate, not to mention the palate. The huitlacoche filling was barely detectable, though a liberal dollop of the stuff on top was the dish’s one saving grace.
General Manager Joanna Hernandez says that the two dishes are among Casa Oaxaca’s most popular. They’ve been on the menu since the eatery opened about four years ago, and up to 400 plates are served each week between the two.
According to Hernandez, people tend to be wary of huitlacoche at first (apparently, the term ‘fungus’ weirds them out), but thanks to an effort to rebrand it as the ‘Mexican truffle’ over the last 20 years, they’re coming around. The James Beard Foundation even went so far as to hold a much-hyped huitlacoche-themed dinner in 1989, which declared it as such.
Despite all the effort, only two other eateries in the District are bold enough to dish it up. Oyamel in Penn Quarter serves two such dishes, one with rice and the other in a quesadilla. Nearby Rosa Mexicano serves a quesdadilla as well. Y&H alum Tim Carman even wrote about the impossibility of finding it fresh in the D.C. area back in 2007. I suppose it hasn’t exactly caught on yet, but consider this: If you’re looking for bizarre foods, huitlacoche is more humane than lion, less gamey than alligator and hell of a lot cheaper than those traditional truffles.
Photos by Rachel Tepper