It wasn’t the most authentic of settings, but my maiden voyage to the land of Mexican elotes took place via a Chicago White Sox game. Two thoughts stuck: “These greedy bastards are charging $6 for a small tray of corn?!” More consequentially: “Boy, sweet corn with mayo + butter + cheese + lime + chili is mighty delicious.”
Like baseball, fireflies, and small-town parades, elotes are a harbinger of summer, a simple but impressive and indulgent showcase for sweet corn. It’s an all-dressed-up version of corn-on-the-cob, where a helpful slather of mayonnaise and butter helps cheese and chili powder adhere to the kernels. The overpriced ballpark elotes left such an impression, the next day I sought out a more genuine version in Chicago.
I found it in the city’s Little Village neighborhood, the residential and economic heart of Chicago’s Mexican populace. In a city where regulation and red tape all but suppresses street food culture, the only carts I encountered were for elotes and tamales. At several of these elotes stands, the ritual was the same: The vendor would remove a corn-on-the-cob from a steaming cooler. Holding the cob upright by its stick, she would slice vertically, the kernels landing onto a plastic mat. She would fold the plastic mat in half and dump its contents into a styrofoam cup. The vendor would then juice a lime over the corn, scrape off a spatula’s worth of mayonnaise against the cup, squeeze on imitation butter, and spoon the feta-like cotija cheese and chili powder on top. This set me back $2.50, though the norm is to hand over three singles and tell her to keep it. (Purists will argue elotes is served on-the-cob, while esquites is off-the-cob and pan-fried. But elotes has become the catch-all word for the dish, and the term we’ll use here.)
Whether served on the cob or off, this marriage of sweet, fat, spice, citrus, and salty cheese is dangerous and enticing, a combination sounding more like a misprint than carefully considered. The undisputed best way to enjoy sweet corn is grilled with a pat of butter, so elotes might be seen as a next-level application, a justified gilding of the lily.
As with all dishes, but especially with elotes, achieving balance is key. While you could easily cut corn and fold in the mayonnaise, cheese, and spices (and making it easier to eat), there’s just something tactilely and visually satisfying about serving elotes on the cob (plus, it discourages you from adding too much mayonnaise, as a light slather on the cob suffices). The recipe below comes via chef Andres Padilla of Chicago’s Topolobampo, founded by Rick Bayless and recently awarded outstanding restaurant, the top prize of the James Beard Foundation.
In this recipe, Mexican crema (or sour cream) is employed, though you can substitute the more common mayonnaise. Boiled corn will also do, but please consider taking the extra step and grill whole cobs over charcoal. It doesn’t even compare.
Charcoal-grilled corn with cream, cheese and chile
Serves six; recipe courtesy Topolobampo in Chicago
6 ears fresh sweet corn, in their husks
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup thick cream or commercial sour cream mixed with a little milk or cream
1/3 cup crumbled Mexican queso anejo or queso fresco, or cheese like Parmesan, feta, cotija, or farmer’s cheese
1 Tbsp. hot powdered chile (ground chile de arbol, guajillo, or New Mexico chile)
1. About an hour before serving, place the ears of corn in a deep bowl, cover with cold water and weight with a plate to keep them submerged. Light your charcoal fire and let it burn until the bed of coals is medium-hot; adjust the grill four inches above the fire.
2. Lay the corn on the grill and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, turning frequently, until the outer leaves are blackened. Remove, let cool several minutes, then remove the husks and silk. About 10 minutes before serving, brush the corn with melted butter, return to the grill and turn frequently until nicely browned. Serve right away, passing the cream, cheese, and powdered chile for your guests to use to their own liking. Serve with a wedge of lime.
Bonus variation: Esquites (as served in Toluca and Mexico City)
Cut the kernels from six cobs, then fry in three tablespoons lard, vegetable oil, or butter, with hot green chile to taste (seeded and sliced) and two or three tablespoons chopped epazote. Season with salt.