By their fruits ye shall know them.
Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?
As Americans are often prone to judge fruit by the pleasingness of its appearance, the fragrance of its bouquet and the sweetness of its flavor, huitlacoche may not stand a chance. A fungus which forms on the ears of corns, huitlacoche resembles a malignant tumor with postulous black secretions Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement. In more pleasant company it’s called corn smut. As if that isn’t bad enough, it’s created from a disease formed by a pathogenic plant fungus. Is it any wonder persnickety Americans have been slow to accept that huitlacoche could possibly be considered a delicacy?
Perhaps Americans would be wise to remember that the ancient Aztecs were one of the world’s most advanced civilizations in medicine, math and science and they incorporated huitlacoche into their cooking as have generations of their descendants. Perhaps if American farmers understood its potential as a culinary delight, they wouldn’t work so hard to eradicate it. Perhaps if nutritionists recognized that huitlacoche is replete with unique proteins, minerals and other nutritional properties, it might be advocated as a healthful alternative to what is found acceptable within the American diet.
In Mexico, street markets are brimming with vendors selling fresh huitlacoche, often from buckets where mounds of this purplish-blackish fungus are available both on the cob and as kernels scraped from the cob. Vendors at those same markets proffer other Aztecan delicacies such as chapulines (crispy fried crickets), gusanos (worms of the maguay cactus) and escamoles (ant eggs). Compared to these creepy crawlies (usually eaten live, rolled up in a tortilla with a squeeze of lime and a dash of salt), maybe huitlacoche doesn’t sound so bad after all.
A number of failed marketing ploys have been attempted to make huitlacoche more palatable to the “sophisticated” American palate and to disassociate it from its grotesque origin and scatological name. It’s been called “Mexican truffles,” “Aztec caviar” and “maize mushrooms,” but for some reason, huitlacoche just has not caught on. It didn’t catch on after Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, introduced this delicacy to the world in her timeless classic Cuisines of Mexico: “Huitlacoche…produces big, swollen, deformed kernels, black inside and covered with a silvery-gray skin. As the fungus cooks it exudes a black juice. It is perfectly delicious, with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is almost impossible to describe.”
It didn’t catch on when in 1989, the James Beard Foundation hosted an “all huitlacoche” dinner, touting it as the “Mexican truffle.” It didn’t catch on after Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist Martha Mendoza (who worked for the Albuquerque bureau of the Associated Press from 1995 to 1997) wrote about its nutritional properties in 2010. Perhaps in the Duke at least, it will catch on when adventurous Albuquerque diners tell their friends about the amazing Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger at Jo’s Place on Fourth Street. If you haven’t heard about Jo’s Place, don’t worry. You will…and you’ll hear about it a lot.
Jo’s Place is the most recent (launched on January 17, 2011) brainchild of restaurant impresario and incomparable chef Dennis Apodaca who also owns and operates two of Albuquerque’s highest regarded eateries: Sophia’s Place (named for his daughter) and Ezra’s Place (named for his son). Jo’s Place is named for Dennis’s mother Josie. It is within easy walking distance of both Sophia’s Place (6313 Fourth Street, N.W.) and Ezra’s Place (6132 Fourth Street, N.W.), making it easy for Dennis to oversee his operations. Though his current focus is on getting Jo’s Place on its feet and primed for success, his other restaurants remain in good hands with CIA trained chefs at the helm. CIA, by the way, stands for the Culinary Institute of Apodaca.
Dennis can probably relate to the plight of the huitlacoche. Sophia’s Place is situated in a timeworn edifice you might pass by without a second thought save for wondering why the parking lot is so full. Ezra’s Place is housed in a bowling alley, traditionally not a venue in which you can expect to find outstanding food. By their fruits, Albuquerque has come to know that Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place serve some of the very best and most exciting food in New Mexico. In fact, the culinary world arrived at that realization when Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri visited Sophia’s in 2008 for an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Jo’s Place showcases Dennis’s interpretation of contemporary Mexican food. As has come to be expected from the inventive chef, he does not subscribe to anyone’s template of what contemporary Mexican food should be and how it should look. His menu is not some compendium of every stereotypical “contemporary” Mexican food item any cognoscenti might believe should be on such a menu. Nor are there any obvious indications from the restaurant’s simple signage to its exterior color pallet what Dennis’s vision for his new restaurant is. Jo’s Place is housed in the same space that was previously used by Hurley’s Coffee, Tea and Bistro, an Irish-themed eatery.
Passers-by might surmise by its hunter green exterior that Jo’s Place remains an Irish restaurant, but you won’t any time soon see Dennis painting the structure red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. Nor does the restaurant’s interior bear any telltale signs that Jo’s Place is about contemporary Mexican food as others might interpret it. This is all indicative of the genius of Dennis Apodaca who does not subscribe to stereotypes, templates or expectations. He is very much his own man and he does what he wants. As at the walls of his two other restaurants, Jo’s Place is festooned with colorful contemporary art including several intriguing paintings from Cecilia M. Schmider’s “face off” series.
The menu is festooned with intriguing items. Headlining the abbreviated menu is a trio of burgers served with fries or a salad. What makes these burgers “contemporary Mexican” is the ingredients with which they are concocted. Consider the Mole Puebla burger with Jack cheese, the Poblano burger with Jack cheese and the aforementioned Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom burger. When is the last time you saw a burger line-up that inventive? The Comida Economicas (cheap eats) section of the menu features a plain burger with cheese (yawn), a chicken and lime tortilla soup and a trio of salsas.
Open from 7AM to 7PM, Jo’s Place offers only a handful of breakfast items: a breakfast quesadilla; potatoes, scrambled eggs and black chili oil; chorizo scramble; and huevos with salsa ranchera. All are available with or without meat. The menu also includes a number of salads served with or without meat (fish o’ day, shrimp, chicken, sirloin). Salads are adorned with avocado, black beans, corn, Cojita cheese and tomatoes and can be topped with your choice of dressing: jalapeño ranch, green onion vinaigrette, roasted garlic, fresca, charred tomato and pineapple vinaigrette. Also available are a red chile lime Caesar salad and a unique rendition of a Cobb salad which includes chorizo, achiote, turkey, black beans, tomatoes, corn and cheese. As at Sophia’s Place, specials of the day are plentiful and varied and you place your order at a counter before taking a seat.
Long-time followers of Dennis Apodaca’s culinary career might remember that prior to launching Sophia’s Place, he served as chef at the long-defunct Fajitaville. One of Fajitaville’s hallmarks was its creative salsas, the flavors of which remain imprinted in my memories. In the salsa trio with chips, those memories are rekindled. The triumvirate of terrific salsas are a fire-roasted tomato salsa, a pico de gallo and a pineapple salsa (pineapple, red onion, cilantro, red pepper). None of the salsas are especially piquant, but all have depth of flavor and deliciousness. The chips are housemade and served warm.
A special of the day during our inaugural visit, a turkey achiote quesadilla served with a side salad and a ramekin of pico de gallo is reflective of Dennis’s unique genius. Instead of one large tortilla being sliced pizza-style (triangle-shaped wedges), this quesadilla appears to be four small flour tortillas. Each is engorged with finely cubed turkey, Cheddar, black beans and onions. The quesadillas are grilled to a consistency somewhere between slightly crispy and soft and pliable. They’re made even more flavorful when one of the salsas is applied to the proportion of your choice.
The Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger was easily the highlight of our inaugural visit, impressing on my taste buds a deliciousness that not even Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cuisine, was able to describe adequately. Huitlacoche truly does have a flavor that may be impossible to describe. It’s unlike any other flavor, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms. This is a burger which you dare not adulterate with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or any other ameliorant. It needs absolutely no help. Not even green chile would make it any better. It’s a fantastic burger!
In New Mexico, green chile cheeseburgers are sacrosanct, a state treasure we cherish and celebrate. It would be too easy for Dennis to craft a green chile cheeseburger worthy of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. Instead, he dares to be different and it pays off in huge dividends of flavor. The Mole Puebla Burger with Jack Cheese is listed second on his revolutionary burger menu, but may be the equal of the aforementioned huitlacoche burger. Dennis’s mole is the main reason. With an explosive flavor reminiscent of reconstituted dried chiles flavored redolent of chocolate, raisins, cinnamon (I’m just guessing here) and other sweet-piquant-tangy ingredients. Mole is a highly complex sauce, but Dennis has the formula down pat. Unfortunately, there are no other items on the menu that showcase what is some of the best mole in Albuquerque. One word of warning–the mole is very messing. Expect your fingers to be painted a brownish-red color. Burgers at Jo’s Place are served with tomatoes, lettuce and chopped onion, all fresh and crisp.
The mole would be terrific as a dipping sauce for the fries, one of two options (the other is a salad) you can have with your burger. Though my preference would have been for the sublimely sexy shoestring fries served at Sophia’s, these fries have a personality all their own. They appear to be double-fried which imbues them with a crispy stiffness wholly unlike the flaccid fries served by some restaurants. The fries are sprinkled with a spice mix that includes both red chile and just a hint of cumin (no comment here).
Desserts, mostly pastries and cookies, are available in a glass case by the counter at which you place your order. The poppy seed scone is impregnated with a bit of tangy orange zest. It’s light and flaky, a perfect scone for dipping into coffee or a British milk tea. Even better is a chocolate brownie studded with chunks of walnut. The brownie has an adult chocolate flavor and is moist and delicious.
In Jo’s Place, Dennis Apodaca has yet another winner, a restaurant that might soon be spoken of in the same reverential tones as Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place. Though other Duke City restaurant impresarios may do it in grander, more opulent style with the flash and panache made possible with bigger bankrolls, when it comes to pure deliciousness and personality, you can’t beat Dennis Apodaca’s Fourth Street restaurant trio.
6100-B 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2011
1st VISIT: 1 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Trio of Salsas, Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger, Turkey Achiote Quesadilla, Mole Puebla with Jack Cheese Burger