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I'd Rather Have Smut Than Truffles

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Sep 26, 2014 9:05PM

Lately the fine dining world in Chicago has been infected with sub-par black truffles. Rather than imparting an explosion of savory flavors as complex as the dark rich soil they come from, these taste like nothing— if you are lucky. If you are unlucky you'll get little pucks that taste like that time you accidentally bit into some plastic wrap.

Worse, no one in the industry is willing to talk about them. Though I know it's not just me because other diners have noticed as well. But the truffle industry is like the mafia and I understand why chefs might not want to (or be afraid to) complain. Also complaining about truffles is likely to earn you laughs rather than sympathy. Talk about "first world problems."

But the fine dining ritual of shaving truffles on a dish has become a reenactment of the Emperor's New Clothes. It's a symbol of luxury that imparts nothing but the pretense of finery. And considering what truffles cost, not particularly good for the diner in any way. It's sad, because beyond being luxurious, good truffles really do taste incredibly delicious.

So avoid them, especially if they are an extra pricey supplement. If you are looking for something to sate your deep dark fungal cravings, you should look elsewhere. And lately I've been getting my fix at Authentaco (1141 N Ashland Ave.), a new taco joint in the taco-saturated Ashland stretch between Division and Grand. There they serve the unfortunately named "Corn smut," which they call more charitably by its Spanish name— huitlacoche. It is literally an infection of corn and it's really not very pretty. The one picture I took of my quesadillas looked like the black oil from The X-files. But that's OK because it tastes amazing. And like truffles, it's a gift from the wild, not amenable to human cultivation. Humans have to get lucky to find them.

It's best served in a quesadilla, made with fresh tortillas and gooey cheese. The huitlacoche has little fragments of corn silk and tastes like if you cooked the finest porcini mushrooms with the best summer corn. Also, it's a lot cheaper. Give me this over truffles any day.