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Searching Dallas for Huitlacoche, AKA the "Corn Smut" on That Quesadilla

Quesadilla with huitlacoche at El Atoron
Quesadilla with huitlacoche at El Atoron

The first time I encountered huitlacoche in Dallas I was at a Café Momentum dinner featuring chef Abraham Salum. The bowl had a beautiful corn chowder, if I recall, and was garnished with the tiniest dab of huitlacoche -- barely enough to emit the faintest aroma and a bit of a tease if you're a fan of the delicacy.

The second time I bumped into huitlacoche I was dining at Stephan Pyles' Stampede 66. Pyles used just enough of the huitlacoche in an emulsion to turn the sauce a loamy gray. The flavor was imperceivable.

An ingredient that bears the name "Mexican truffle" deserves more than to be used as a casual accent. What I was looking for was a dish that was heaped with the stuff and little else -- a huitlacoche taco, or a quesadilla -- and I finally found it in a small taquerìa on Henderson Avenue.

Maybe you know huitlacoche by its other name: corn smut, which doesn't much help when you're trying to conjure images of delicious food. And for some, the idea of chowing down on corn kernels infected with fungal spores takes a bit of getting used to. The spores replace the kernels with large, misshapen tumors filled with goo that relax into a black, glossy heap hiding a few golden reminders of the past, when cooked.

Get over what it looks like, though. Imagine the flavor of sweet, creamy corn mixed with the earthiest mushroom you've ever tasted. It's delicious, which brings me back to El Atoron.

You've likely driven by the place countless times. It's a small, standalone building with a drive-through window and enough rickety seating for about 20 inside. The menu is filled with tortas big enough to chock a school bus, tacos, gorditas and more, but huitlacoche quesadillas is handwritten on a sign taped to the back of the register. Order one and a cook will grab a ball of masa and use a press to squish it out into a thin football shape. The masa cooks on the grill a while and then it's folded, filled with a heaping mound of huitlacoche and just enough cheese.

I'm still trying to work out the source. The woman working the counter told me it was "not processed," but couldn't answer my questions about whether it was canned or frozen. It's certainly not fresh -- there's not of that bold, earthy flavor, but it is a fine enough introduction to how huitlacohe is traditionally served.

As a side note, the tacos at Atoron aren't half bad either. The cooks let tiny store-bought tortillas cook on the grill until they're slightly crispy, and then fill them with the usual subjects. The suadero is meaty and chewy and the pastor is tender and sweet. I'd have tried more, but that was a pretty big quesadilla.


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