By now, both regulars and first-timers know that the smart order at José is the “tacos de Tacha,” an ever-changing special of seasonal tacos on colorful corn tortillas. The reputation is well-deserved. José’s kitchen staff makes tortillas by hand, and the corn comes from heirloom varietals in Mexico, not low-flavor mass-produced industrial products like Maseca. The cooks here add more ingredients for flavor and color. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed cilantro tortillas, habanero tortillas (more sweet than hot), and earthy tortillas made with cocoa powder.
But tacos de Tacha are not the only way to enjoy executive chef Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman’s commitment to masa. Her menu has always dabbled in other ways of turning heirloom corn into delicious snacks: tetelas, memelas, gorditas. Right now, you can enjoy your masa in the form of a huarache. Huaraches, if you have not enjoyed them before, are wide and flat, shaped like (and named after) sandals. José’s version is on the appetizer menu at lunch and dinner, and it’s a vegetarian delight.
Quiñones-Pittman says that there was a learning curve for her cooks with higher-quality corn products, because cheaper processed brands are easier to work with and shape.
“Maseca is so easy to play with and so moldable,” the chef says. “There’s a lot more work involved with ground corn, because the texture is different.” Luckily, her chefs enjoy the challenge, although she adds that there is a practical limit. “We try not to overwhelm them because they do make a lot of tortillas.”
The huarache at José right now is topped with a mix of lion’s mane mushrooms and guajillo salsa. The savory lion’s mane mushrooms echo the texture of shredded chicken, which has made them popular around town as a meat substitute. Before he moved to New Mexico, Graham Dodds used lion’s mane mushrooms in dishes at Elm & Good.
“They absorb all of the flavor of whatever you’re cooking with,” Quiñones-Pittman tells me about the mushrooms. Her team did a taste test for these huaraches, telling staff they were eating chicken and then revealing the truth afterwards. The dish passed.
“It’s a big misconception that Mexican food is meaty, it’s cheesy, it’s heavy and hearty,” she says. “That’s where the huarache came from, wanting to do something with the masa that was vegetarian.”
In addition to the guajillo salsa, little spikes of flavor hit individual bites across the huarache in the form of pickled red onions, queso fresco, and dabs of green avocado-serrano salsa. Underneath the toppings and salsas, a thin layer of refried beans holds everything together. If you are not too familiar with Mexican food, you could be forgiven for comparing the dish to a pizza, though it is more like a celebration of corn. (When I visited, the huarache was made with blue corn, but the color regularly changes based on availability of heirloom varieties.)
Look for more masa products to hit the menu soon. José’s winter menu will be reorganized into an easier-to-read format dividing the foods into types: masa-based offerings, seafood dishes, and so on. Whether huaraches will still be around, or whether they will be replaced by machetes, memelitas, sopes, tlacoyos, or something else, remains to be seen.
But you can bet that the next masa showcase will be worth trying.