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Maiz Does Corn Smut Right

All Over the Map

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"It's all about tradition," says Carlos Reyna, tapping one of the tabletops at his restaurant, Maiz, which he recently relocated from Cicero to Wicker Park. "I grew up on this food. We're keeping alive the traditions of pre-Hispanic Mexican cooking--the cooking I learned from my mother."

Born in Mexico City, Reyna immigrated to Chicago in 1986, where he pursued an interest in theater while supporting himself and his wife, Margaret, by waiting tables--mostly at funky Mexican restaurants. He covers his face with his hand and says he doesn't even want to name them. "Everything was the same at all of them. You couldn't get a good vegetable at any of them."

The couple opened the original Maiz--with about a dozen seats--in March of 1998 and moved it to Chicago last December. The new space increases the capacity to 65, but it's still a bare-bones operation. They accept only cash and don't have a liquor license; for now diners can bring their own wine or beer and pay a buck for corkage. (There's a well-stocked liquor store a half block to the west.)

At first glance Maiz is just another stark, unembellished storefront eatery. Then, inside, you see the expressive Mayan, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican gods and totems painted on the walls and depicted on the etched-wood tabletops, and a small display of totemic statuary on a shelf.

Maiz may be all about tradition, but to the uninitiated it's all about corn, the staple food for the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico and Guatemala and the base of almost everything served at the restaurant--even a hot porridgelike drink called atole.

Masa harina, a Mexican cornmeal batter, is cooked on a griddle to make tortillas three or four times thicker than store-bought ones, but much lighter and puffier--almost spongy--in consistency. The brief menu offers six tortilla variations, named according to shape: there's a huarache, long and oval shaped like the sandal; a tlacoyo, a shorter oval; a chalupa, which is shaped like a canoe; a sope, a thick round cake; and, of course, a round tortilla for tacos. Each of these has a different accompaniment that's some combination of refried beans, cheese, sour cream, and pico de gallo.

Next, you pick the topping: steak, chicken, chorizo, marinated pork, salmon, avocado, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, potato, or crunchy diced cactus paddles (minus the spikes). Only one topping is permitted--to allow the individual flavors to shine--but two or three tortillas combined create a meal that would satisfy all but the most ravenous eaters.

There's also a distinctive ingredient available for a 95-cent premium: huitlacoche, which is unfortunately called "corn smut" in English. This is one of the great delicacies of Mexican cuisine and it really deserves a more appetizing name in translation--"corn truffles," maybe?--to elevate it to its rightful gastronomic place.

Huitlacoche, like truffles, mushrooms, and Chinese tree ears and cloud ears, is a fungus. It grows on ears of sweet corn primarily during the rainy season, causing the kernels to swell and turn gray or black. To U.S. farmers it's a blight, but Mexican farmers prize it because it increases the value of their crop. When cooked, it's delicious, black like ink with an ingratiating, woody flavor and a texture somewhere between baked beans and oatmeal.

Fresh huitlacoche is hard to come by in the U.S., so Reyna imports it through a friend in Mexico. Maiz is probably the only place in town that offers it every day, although it regularly appears on the menu at fancier regional Mexican spots like Topolobampo or Ixcapuzalco. Reyna sautees it with a bit of onion, garlic, the ubiquitous herb epazote, and a dab of chili pepper. The soft, nubbly black potion that emerges lends a subtle, slightly aromatic, earthy undertone to the tortilla preparation of your choice.

Rounding out the menu is a tasty quesadilla made with a couple of Reyna's puffy round tortillas encasing melted asadero cheese and epazote. There's also a large flavorful meat-filled tamale steamed in banana leaves and small, sweet jalapeno, bean, and cheese tamales served on a corn husk. The atole changes daily--sometimes chocolate flavored, sometimes raisin or vanilla--as does the water infused with fresh juices ranging from delicate cucumber to potent papaya. The sole dessert, camote en dulce, is made from sweet potato; as authentic as corn smut perhaps, but not nearly as interesting.

Maiz is at 1942 W. Division, 773-862-1801.

--Don Rose

The Dish

Food and Wine Magazine has named Chicagoan Ted Cizma (Grace) one of its ten best new chefs in America for the year 2000.

On April 3, Demetri Alexander (Lola's, Alexander's) opened the State Room, an upscale steak place at 1212 N. State with chef-partner Zaid Mansour manning the kitchen.

Michael Morton and Scott DeGraff, owners of Drink, have finally opened Nine, a contemporary American steak house and seafood restaurant at 440 W. Randolph. The place is luxurious--caviar, oysters, and lobster on the menu, suede couches in the lounge--but there's no liquor license yet, so BYO.

Heaven on Seven plans to open a third location, at 3478 N. Clark (formerly Bella Notte), on April 24.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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