Alejandra reaches into her bucket of blue corn masa, pinches off a small piece — bigger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball — and begins flattening it directly on the hot grill in front of her. She's not using any kind of tool or utensil, and if she feels any pain in her hands from the heat, she certainly isn't letting it show. The masa is a deep purplish-blue, like a bruise, and it's as smooth as Play-Doh.
Cars whiz by about 100 feet away on Sunset. Alejandra, who looks to be in her 30s, is situated by a big pay-to-park lot on Echo Park Ave. There's lots of foot traffic, and all types of people walking by: families, hipsters, working stiffs. Alejandra usually buddies up with her girlfriend, Sabine, who sells bacon-wrapped hotdogs. They sit side-by-side, cooking their food, each on her own grill. They help each other with mundane business tasks, sharing a drinks cooler and spotting each other if one person runs out of change. They do it for companionship, as well as to keep an eye out for each other.
"What would you like?" she asks me. I'm hedging between the huitlacoche and the pollo. "Why not mix the two," she says to me. I ask her if that will taste good. "It'll taste good," she says, and smiles very slightly. She throws some white cheese onto the blue masa oval and it immediately begins to soften and glisten. She tosses on some chicken meat and then reaches for a container of thick, greyish-black goop. That's the huitlacoche. It looks like something created in a mad scientist's lab, and I'm surprised it's not bubbling and smoking.
Huitlacoche (rhymes with Don Qui-XO-te, but pronounced wheet-la-KOH-tche), also called hongo de maíz, is a delicacy in Mexico. Indeed, it's known as the "Mexican truffle" (Either way, it's much more attractive than the English term for it, "corn smut," which sounds like a dirty magazine for farmers.). Ironically, it's actually a disease — a pathogenic fungus called Ustilago maydis that afflicts young corn and can quickly ruin entire crops. It's considered a pest, generally. Unless, of course, you want huitlacoche, which increasing numbers of farmers are cultivating on purpose, due to demand from restaurants.
After a few minutes, a nice char has developed on both sides of the quesadilla. Handing it to me, it's long and slender, the blue color of the masa deepened from the cooking. The first bite is revelatory: a crisp outside gives way to the soft warmth of the rest of the masa. The chicken is tender and slightly spicy, the entire thing glued perfectly together with a generous amount of runny cheese.
It tastes like a particularly earthy and heady mushroom.
But it's the huitlacoche that takes it to another level. It's deep, dank, and rich, tasting like a particularly earthy and heady mushroom. It adds an umami level that is a rare find in quesadillas, and pushes a flavor composition that is merely good into outstanding territory. The quesadilla, which is pleasantly greaseless, is well served by the addition of the available condiments: onion, cilantro, and green and red salsas.
I immediately order another one — this time potato and chorizo — and it's as good as the first. The creamy potato, spicy chorizo, and cheese combine, Voltron-like, into one super filling, where it's hard to know where one flavor starts and another begins. It's savory, rich, and gooey, with a little smoky kick from the chorizo. While I'm jamming this delicious creation into my maw, Alejandra tells me a little more about her history. She's been doing this for about ten years, but things have been difficult lately.
In reality, street vendors suffer a lot.
She's had to raise her prices (from $3 to $4 per quesadilla) to offset rising food costs, as well as the occasional unexpected expenditure. I ask her what she means, and it soon becomes clear: street vending is not legal in Los Angeles. She has had her equipment confiscated on a number of occasions, and had to pay fines in order to get it back. "It's difficult," she says. "In reality, we [street vendors] suffer a lot."
Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States where street vending remains illegal. Ironically, there are more street vendors in L.A. than in any other city — tens of thousands, by some estimates. Some of L.A.'s very best food is cooked in its streets, and vendors deserve to conduct their business safely and under full protection of the law. Think about it: every other major city has a way for street vendors to operate legally. Why not Los Angeles?
Alejandra, the blue corn quesadilla lady, is on Echo Park Ave. (near Sunset) from Friday to Monday, from roughly noon until 6 p.m.