Ten bucks for three hefty cuitlacoche tacos plus beans and rice? That's a fungal infection I can get behind.
Welcome back, readers, to the world of Madison's strangest menu items; it's been a while. Outside of a brief interlude with very mature cheese, much of the last 12 months have been spent wondering what could possibly measure up to the business end of pork. But I've been reinvigorated to the fringe scene, and what else gets a guy going but smut?
No, really -- smut. Specifically, corn smut. I don't know who coined the term, but appetite can't have been part of the naming process. "Smut" refers to the growths that occur on plants with fungal infections. There's sugarcane smut, and loose smut (that's on barley), and a wheat variety that is called both covered smut and stinking smut. I'm glad I don't have to eat that one.
This is another one of those foods that forces you to wonder what exactly the first daring eater was thinking; infected ears of corn puff up, turn purplish-black, and grow fuzz. The Aztec name for this freaky-looking cob is cuitlacoche (also frequently spelled "huitlacoche"), which likely meant "sleeping shit." Wrapped in the husk, cuitlacoche does look a bit like a swaddled turd. So, naturally, it's what's for dinner.
If you separate the gruesome visual from the scientific facts, however, the decision to eat cuitlacoche becomes at least a little less bizarre. It's a mushroom, when you get right down to it; we can't blame it for its poor branding any more than we can blame spotted dick or headcheese. And cuitlacoche has fans at all stations, from farmers in Mexico who can sell it at a premium, to restaurant reviewers in the New York Times. Critic Sam Sifton praised its funkiness in his recent review of Toloache in Midtown Manhattan.
The Big Apple is all right, but Madison has its very own purveyor of corn smut: Las Cazuelas, where cuitlacoche has been served since the restaurant opened late last year. Having inherited a wood-fire oven, the restaurant has been excelling at big-ticket menu items like cochinita pibil and chamorro. In that company, simple tacos are easy to overlook, but a classic double corn tortilla wrapper is something of a siren song for me.
Las Cazuelas has a nice bar for eating, even if the pedestrian traffic and occasional mariachi band makes it a bit busy. I ordered the tacos de cuitlacoche along with a Michelada. a beer cocktail similar to a bloody Mary (and actually has nothing to do with Michelob, despite the similarity in name). Three tacos -- each stuffed full of cuitlacoche, zucchini, sweet corn, onions and cilantro -- arrive, accompanied by beans and rice. Lime and salsa de arbol are also available, making this a formidable and savory meal.
My first impression of the smut was of the topping on a mushroom and Swiss burger. Cuitlacoche cooks down to a thick gravy, and the texture of the fungus is something between a button mushroom and an overcooked black bean. Of course, it's possible that my experience is unique to the time of year I ate cuitlacoche -- or rather, the time of year I didn't eat it.
Like any other harvested crop, cuitlacoche has a season. When the time is right, in the dry months of late summer and early autumn, Las Cazuelas orders fresh ears every week. Unfortunately, it's not quite in-season yet; for now, canned cuitlacoche is the smut du jour. As with most foods, canning means lackluster texture. Something of a letdown, sure, but you know what they say about smut: you know it when you see it.
The flavor of corn tortillas can be pretty strong sometimes, and these are no exception. But since we're talking about a dish with two other kinds of prepared corn in it already, I guess I don't see this as a fault, just an elaboration. The veggie/cuitlacoche mixture is flavorful: earthy from the corn, fresh from the zucchini and onion. A shot of lime juice wakes things up a little, and the salsa is smoky and complements everything well.
It's a perfectly fine plate of tacos, and certainly one that'll get your table talking. Tell your dinner-mates that you're advocating for food efficiency; with the amount of corn this country produces, you can argue that the USDA shouldn't be trying to eradicate the cuitlacoche fungus from American crops. It's a ready food source.
An underappreciated protein, a conversation-starter, and a tasty one at that? Sounds like a winner for Las Cazuelas, and the brave diners who order it. And a thought for any sassy local restaurateurs or chefs: pair it with huevos, and see if anyone catches the "smut and eggs" reference.
Brave eaters, food fans, and smut afficionados: do you have something to add? Send an email to Fringe Foods with questions or suggestions, or better yet, follow along at twitter.com/fringefoods and send an @ reply.