Elote, the Mexican street corn on the cob slathered with mayo, crumbled cotija cheese, chile and lime, is an addictive combination of flavors that leaves you always wanting more. Once you’ve had it, you never forget it. And yet it wasn’t always so easy to come by north of the border.
But now chefs are suddenly finding inspiration to transform these flavors into best-selling restaurant dishes that can be eaten with a knife and fork. At Proxi in Chicago, it lands on the table in the form of an appetizer called tempura elotes. “I’ve always been a big fan of elotes,” says Andrew Zimmerman, chef and partner of Proxi and one-MICHELIN-starred Sepia, also in Chicago. “But I knew it was going to be too messy to eat in our dining room.” The solution: he cut the corn off the cob and fried it with a Japanese tempura batter. “It has that same comforting taste but an added crunch and sophistication.”
“When planning the menu for Proxi, I knew I wanted to make dishes that reminded guests of their travels around the world, but also made them do a double take with the presentation and flavors,” he continues. “The inspiration also comes from a corn fritter that the Japanese serve with udon noodles called kakiage. In true elotes form, the dish is finished with mayonnaise but to make it unique I use Kewpie to further the Japanese spin on the dish. It’s then garnished with Grana Padano, chile, lime and chives.”
At Doi Moi in Washington, D.C., chef Johanna Hellrigl reimagines elotes as Cambodian grilled corn. Her dish has multiple inspirations from her own childhood, the four years she spent in Southeast Asia working with a democracy building organization and elotes eaten in Mexico.
“When I was a child, my mother used to poach my corn on the cob in water, salt and some whole milk. It helped sweeten the kernels of the corn,” Hellrigl explains. “Pot Ang is a type of street corn on the cob from Cambodia that is grilled with coconut milk and some palm sugar. Mexican corn on the cob has so much texture along with being salty, sweet and spicy. I decided to combine the best of everything. I poach my corn in coconut milk, water and salt to get the same sweetness from the milk like my mother did. I then grill my corn and baste it—first with duck fat and then with a glaze made from palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, fish sauce and Thai chiles. Once grilled and caramelized, I drizzle it with a makrut lime leaf and Thai green chile mayo.” For the grand finale, the dish is topped with salty and sweet toasted coconut chips, green onions and chile lime leaf salt.
At one-MICHELIN-starred Lord Stanley in San Francisco, chefs Carrie and Rupert Blease put a spin that feels more California on the dish. In a corn husk, they present a warm corn cake glazed with a classic pairing of honey and fresh goat cheese along with espelette chutney and deep-fried corn silk. “We love using fried corn silks whenever possible,” says Carrie. “They are such an often overlooked yet amazing and tasty ingredient.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever done anything but throw these silks away.)
Not surprisingly, many chefs doling out Mexican fare are reinterpreting traditional flavors in their versions of elotes. Rick Bayless, the godfather of Mexican cuisine stateside, features corn five ways on the tasting menu at his one-MICHELIN-starred Topolobampo—fresh local sweet corn, crispy pozole, freeze-dried popcorn, charred baby corn with lime mayo and añejo cheese, and rich corn broth and epazote. And at his more casual Frontera Grill, Bayless serves grilled roasted corn with homemade sour cream, añejo cheese, chile or serrano mayo, fresh cheese and cilantro.
At Dos Urban Cantina, also located in the Windy City, chef/owner Brian Enyart’s menu features street-style corn described as buttery sweet corn, lime crema, red chile powder, cotija and heirloom masa pudding. “We wanted the dish to function both as something really delicious but also to highlight the versatility, importance and texture of corn,” he explains. “Nixtamal or hominy is both poached and also served smooth as a pudding, aka tamal colado, alongside its more American sweet corn simmered with butter.”
Diana Dávila, chef and owner of Mi Tocaya in Chicago, serves up MariaJuana elote en vaso. “It’s based on the classic street corn found in Mexico.” She explains that when you order it in Mexico, “you have two options: on the cob or en vaso, which means that it’s off the cob.” Her char-grilled corn is served en vaso with butter, crema, cheese, lime/chile salt, cilantro, lime segments and chopped lobster, all tossed in a lime mayo. “We call it MariaJuana because we use a CBD-infused butter so it’s a bit of a play on marijuana.”
Davila says she “definitely has memories of having elote in Mexico and the en vaso format is very conducive to sharing.”
Never has it been so easy to indulge in this delicious Mexican street snack in American restaurants. No passport required.
Hero image by Anjali Pinto.