Mexican street corn is popping up just about everywhere. But how did this popular street food from our neighbors to the south end up a ubiquitous snack and appetizer in New Jersey?
Local business owners say it’s because people travel to Mexico and other Latin countries more often and are becoming more familiar with their cuisine. People have also tried it at street fairs, festivals and events. And it’s quick and easy to eat on the go.
“It’s existed for a long time but now people have caught onto it. Once you like something, word spreads,” said Carlos Castillo, owner of Carlitos Barbecue Taqueria at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus.
The corn cobs, often on sticks, are usually spread with mayonnaise and sprinkled with cotija cheese. The mayonnaise is an important ingredient because it holds the other ingredients onto the cob. Traditionally, people in Mexico would stand inside small carts set up on the street where they cooked the corn, usually grilling or roasting it, before serving it to their customers.
Here in the Garden State, restaurants have added it to their menus as an appetizer item. Others sell it in food trucks parked at local events like summer concerts, in parks and at office complexes.
Before he opened his taqueria, Castillo got his start with food truck in July 2017 at Exchange Place in Jersey City, selling street corn and tacos. He expanded his business and opened a in December of 2018 in the Garden State mall. He still goes to events and has a pop-up tent at the World Trade Center, where he sells street corn every Friday from June to October, though he doesn't go to Exchange Place anymore.
At the restaurant, a more expanded menu is offered with Mexican dishes such as pulled pork, brisket and chicken, lime rice and sweet plantains, tacos, churros and, of course, Mexican street corn.
Castillo said he likes to keep his corn traditional.
“We make the corn with Hellman’s mayonnaise, cotija cheese and lime chile powder, but we give people the option to leave the chile powder off,” said Castillo, noting that some people don’t like it too spicy.
The corn is grilled and then boiled lightly to give it texture, which is slightly different from how it was cooked in the food truck, where Castillo used a smoker and wood and cooked the corn at a low temperature.
“We liked the smokiness the grill would create, but sometimes we would get a drier product,” Castillo said.
Over at El Matador 2 in Bloomfield, Mexican street corn is also made to keep up with tradition.
At the restaurant, which is located along Broad Street in the north center of town, the corn is boiled and then the mayonnaise, cotija cheese and a touch of chile is added.
Owner Marco Torres said the sweet and sour chile lime combo tajin is mostly used, as many of the customers aren’t accustomed to the spiciness of the crushed pepper, which is used in Mexico. But customers who like spicy can ask for the crushed pepper. Tajin is typically sprinkled on fruit in Mexico.
To add some more flavor, mildly spicy corn chips called takis are crumbled up and put on the corn.
“Takis are very popular. They are spicy but they are at a level of spicy that people can handle,” Torres said.
Although Torres enjoys the traditional kind of Mexican street corn, he explained that street trucks and food vendors are modernizing the product by putting candy on top and chamoy, which is a variety of sauces used in Mexican cuisine that can have a salty, sweet or sour flavor. Chamoy is made from pickled fruit and can have a paste or a liquid consistency.
“People are improvising,” said Torres. “They are inventing to make it more modern.”
Mexican street corn is a popular item on the menu at El Matador 2, which Torres opened a year ago. (The restaurant used to be called El Matador, named for the bullfighter, and was under different ownership before Torres took it over.)
Other popular items on the menu at El Matador 2 are enchiladas served with mole sauce, a mild sauce made with 15 to 20 ingredients including peanuts, almonds, chips, fried bananas, different types of peppers and chocolate.
In the future, Torres said he hopes to go to taco festivals and street fairs with street corn and other popular foods on the menu. Currently he attends events at the Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center, where he has sold and sampled his food.
“I’m looking forward to those festivals because you get a lot of people who attend,” Torres said. “Street corn is becoming more popular because people see it at the taco festivals.”
The NJ Taco Festival is scheduled for Sept. 7, at the Sussex County Fairgrounds.
The street food has even become a star at non-Mexican restaurants. Mihae Cho, owner of Roosterspin, a Korean restaurant with locations in Westfield and New Brunswick, said she began to sell street corn years ago in New York City.
Cho introduced street corn with her Korean cuisine as a food to pair with items like her famous Korean fried chicken.
“Back then Korean fried chicken was very new,” Cho said. “We wanted people to know about it and street corn paired well with it.”
At Roosterspin, street corn is still served to customers as a side dish.
Her recipe is mostly traditional. The corn is grilled. Then mayonnaise, cotija cheese and paprika are added. She serves the corn with a lime wedge to create a citrus balance with the creamy texture.
The corn is steamed before the customers order it, and once ordered it’s put on the grill to char.
Cho believes that the corn’s easy-to-cook techniques have helped it gain popularly among food trucks and vendors.
“It’s an easy side dish to make,” Cho said.
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