I’m a big believer in the helpful phonetic spelling of tricky words (it comes from a long-ago stint as a junior high school English teacher, a disorderly experience that we needn’t go into here). But in the case of “huitlacoche,” a Nahuatl word, the phonetic “hweet-la- koe-chay” doesn’t help much. And the definition—“corn smut”—may put you off your feed. That said, I’m telling you to run, not walk, to Zandunga Mexican Bistro, on Austin’s near East Side, to try the amazing huitlacoche risotto. Arborio rice is laced with bits of the earthy, smoky-tasting, pearl-gray fungus that flourishes on ears of fresh corn, and as unappealing as that might sound, it’s one of the most seductive dishes you’ll eat all season.
Three-month-old Zandunga intrigues me. Not so much for its pleasant, spare, mustard-yellow interior or its location in a neighborhood that is trying to incubate minority businesses (though props to both of those ideas). What interests me is its modern approach to the ancient roots of interior Mexican food (at least three other Texas restaurants are on a similar path: Takoba, in Austin; Yelapa, in Houston; and Zaragoza Grill, in Laredo). Take, for instance, chef and co-owner Edgar Torres’s deconstructed guacamole (pictured). In this appetizer, he surrounds a pretty bowl of plain mashed avocado with an artist’s palette of colorful add-ons: red roasted tomato and green jalapeño with slightly more unusual orange mango and pink pickled onion. The diner customizes and combines.
You can also see his take in the Chile Relleno Two Ways. Composed of side-by-side stuffed chiles, the dish contrasts “North” and “South.” The North part Texans know well—a nicely roasted poblano filled with stoutly seasoned ground beef and covered with ranchero sauce. The interior-oriented South version is less familiar: an ancho chile stuffed with young hen in mole sauce. Which sounds great but didn’t come off the night I tried it; the chicken tasted tired and the mole thin and namby-pamby. (Yes, yes—I know that the fabled recipe comes from Austin’s beloved Mi Madre’s restaurant and that Edgar, a 26-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is the offspring of that family. I’m just wondering if the mole needs a new direction too.)
That aside, I was charmed by much of what I tried. A basic salad of nopalitos (tartly marinated rectangles of cactus) was happily aligned with a small snowstorm of queso fresco. A well-cooked and moist pork chop wore a fruity guava-and-quince demi-glace mantle sided by a mild Mexican “ratatouille”—chopped chayote, jícama, onion, and corn—and (unfortunately) dry, scraggly spaetzle in a chile de árbol sauce. Desserts lean classic, with only subtle modern tweaks. Our favorite was crepes folded around a heavenly cajeta.
Twenty-five years ago, a cadre of Texas chefs co-created New Southwestern cuisine by applying French techniques to Mexican fundamentals. Eventually the movement became old hat. But on a limited scale, something similar