The tangible joy of quicos, the crunchy Spanish bar snack that's worth the noise

"Is that my tooth I’m crunching on? Who cares! I live for the now"

By Maggie Hennessy


Published September 11, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Bowl of corn nuts (Getty Images/Johner Images)
Bowl of corn nuts (Getty Images/Johner Images)

Why do humans love crunchy food? Scientists say it's partly innate — an indicator that what we're eating is fresh. In the case of fresh produce, noisier suggests higher nutrient value, whereas fatty, processed or fried (aka crunchy) food may appeal to us as a proxy for energy density. 

For me, though, crunchy foods are by far the most fun to eat, and perhaps offer us a momentary reminder to enjoy the present. The crack! then rumbly, deep crunch of a pork cracklin, the airy crispness of a papadum, the delicate shatter of a flaky croissant that gives way to interior chew all seem to call out, "Pay attention! I'm one of the good parts of life!"

It's in this maudlin spirit that I recall the first time I had quicos, the Spanish version of the corn nut that is my all-time favorite bar snack. My companion and I had ducked into a dark, wood-and-tile bar somewhere in Madrid, Spain, after a long afternoon of art museums and wandering. We ordered a round of crisp Mahou beers, which arrived alongside a little bowl of quicos. I hadn't even drunk half my beer before I polished off those salty fried corn kernels. That guttural crunch! It announced itself with such gratifying force — registering a 6.8 on the crunch Richter scale and drowning out all hope of decorous conversation with each handful I took up. 

Quicos are made from giant Spanish or Peruvian corn kernels (up to an inch across, one supplier claims), which are lighter than other corn varieties. They're soaked in water and fried in oil or toasted, then dusted generously with salt. They make for glorious drinking food — light yet satisfying, their salty coating all but begging for another sip of beer. 

As a raucous sort of snack, I imagine quicos feel most at home in low-lit, casual joints; say a subterranean bar with an old wood bartop, pool table and jukebox. Being roughly the size and shape of a human tooth lends an extra bit of danger to the experience of eating these golden morsels. 

"Is that my tooth I'm crunching on? Who cares! I live for the now!" 

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Then again, for some delightful reason, quicos are also the staple bar snack at Travelle, a posh lounge on the second floor of Chicago's Langham Hotel, which is housed in a monolithic Mies van der Rohe skyscraper overlooking the Chicago River. Here servers in black and white formal wear masterfully bend to the absurdly low level of the lounge tables to deposit cocktails in delicate Nick and Nora glasses alongside complimentary bowls of quicos. 

Chomping on them as I observe the haute monde gliding through this place, I become vaguely aware that I might be chewing with my mouth open because I enjoy the extra echo the quicos make when I do so. Should I be embarrassed? Or simply revel in the absurdity of putting the sensory experience of my snack above all else? I choose the latter, and resolve to head to a less formal place, right after they refill my quicos once more, of course. 

I've lately begun spotting quicos at my local Whole Foods Market too, meaning at long last I can snack loudly on them in the comfort of my apartment at my very own drinks party. I tell myself that one of the little plastic clamshell containers they come in will be plenty for four — that I can set out one tiny bowl at a time and maybe even save some for another day. Unfortunately, the group makes quick work of them with the first round of drinks, largely ignoring the also-crunchy, albeit less interesting, carrots and radishes also in residence on the board. Making matters worse, I'm miles behind the others in conversation, as I've been silently fretting over the diminishing quantity of quicos. No matter, I shovel in a mouthful just as one of my companions addresses me.

"What was that? I couldn't hear you over my snack."

By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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Bars Commentary Quicos Snacks Spanish Food