Ancient Maize

dining leosA pre-Colombian soup of Mesoamerican shelled corn continues to nourish and warm us centuries later

The Aztec and other ancient cultures in Mesoamerica gave us many things. For instance, the words chocolate and avocado originated in the Nahuatl language, as did pozole [poh-soh-ley].

The native, large-kernel field corn, cacahuacintle, was a sacred plant to those indigenous inhabitants. They used a process called nixtamalaztion to remove their hulls. Cooked in an alkaline solution of lime (think limestone), the hulls could be rubbed off. This process also increased the nutritive value, adding nicacin. Farther north, the same grain is known as hominy, which has its roots in the American Indian Powhattan name for corn.

Dried, it stores well, and when cooked the kernels boom like a flower and become the smooth basis for tortillas and tamales as well as the celebratory soup named pozole.

To find pozole at Taqueria Agave, you’ll have to wait for the weekend. For an order to go of the “small” size ($6.50), warmed hominy and cubes of lean pork were loaded into a quart container, and the hot broth was poured over them. Creamy, fiery red salsa, cabbage, and lime wedges were packed up for me. I also grabbed some fresh, roasted serrano chilies and pico de gallo from the condiment bar. Steaming hot, the huge, flowery kernels of corn were soft but still chewy in the meaty orange broth.

Taqueria Agave, 1836 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 325-0831. Serving cerveza. Visit taqueriaagave.com.

At El Palomar, pozole is available every day, and a small bowl ($8) is still more than I can consume at a seating. There were fewer and smaller kernels of corn, and a fair amount of fresh, shaved cabbage was added in the kitchen, along with cilantro and tomato. It was prepared the traditional way, with a tender, meaty, bone-in chop of pork which, as expected, required removal of easily separable fat. I dipped the thick house-made corn tortillas into the nicely spiced broth, quenching the heat with one of El Palomar’s famous margaritas.

El Palomar, 1336 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 425-7575. Full bar. Visit elpalomarcilantros.com.

Leo’s Taco Bar may be small, but their flavors are big. The house-made salsas range from mild to fiery to smoky. I took advantage of this buffet while crunching on thin, ultra-crisp tortilla chips. The huge bowl of pozole ($8.95) was steeped in a rich, tan broth with pieces of bay leaves and onion. Droplets of oil attracted the crimson hue of chilies. The plate of condiments included Mexican oregano, salsa fresca and thinly sliced cabbage. Huge chunks of meat had fallen off the bone-in chop, and, of course, some fat removal was in order. I especially liked dipping the tender meat in the mild, thin avocado salsa and the fresh purée of jalapeños.

Leo’s Taco Bar, 1710 Brommer St., Santa Cruz, 465-1105.

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