Second only to torts on this old gringo’s Proustian palate do tamales get down. Tortillian ingestion conjures up a cross fade to high school lunch room antics: government issued bean and cheese burros tastefully appointed with dollops of catsup (try a 7-11 Bomb with Heinz non-believers), serrated dill pickle slices flying lessons, pubic girl terror. All Mexican foods served BITD @ Marcos De Niza (incluso explosive bean tostados) were factory-like and yet quite authentic; handmade, as they were, by robust abuelas.
Possiblamente because Marcos never served them, tamales bringing on teenage kick flashbacks para mi estamos about as Mexican as Doritos. The masa/meat bombs of my youth swam in a pool of red grease, were dressed in wax paper & canned by Chef Dinty Moore over at Hormel Meats. Truth speaker here: Much as I try to make myself out born with a silver switchblade in mi voca loca, I didn’t actually taste a tamale ticpico Mexicano until I moved closer to the land where all these holy platas began; this being Tucson in my late 20s. A slight, quiet undocumented hombre pushed his abulea’s red and green tamales out of a stolen shopping cart in the parking where I worked at a bookstore stocking used porn. Again: Used. Porn.
Eaten out of convenience (6 for $3), in the shade, sans salsa, these masa missiles played out a hot, sticky, greasy cancione on yer taste buds so fina we actually convinced the Tucson Weekly to plug ‘em in their annual “Best of…” issue as the “reader’s choice”. Viva Shopping Cart Tamales!
Like many a gringo – much to the amusement of the afore-blogged tamale purveyor – I went at the corn husk wrapper ‘till my jaw cramped and my gums bled, finally giving up and squeezing the masa/meat mush out like a FIinstones push-up with the same swagger and shame of a face plant survivor.
Even once I smartened up enough to stop eating the husk this mouth stayed unsold/unconvinced/unaddicted/unagape. Tamales just seemed, well, like too much work both to cook and to eat (you have to steam them through like three meals AND you have to be someone’s abuela – that’s another 25 years right there). Even as a college student at the time, estupidly, my stomach and cabeza never connected labor con love. (I am adopted).
Which brings me back to my adopted Chicago – where all appetites lead – to paraphrase Scarface: “This city is a giant hot dog waiting to be eaten” – here – with Red Eagle tort stock – at an all-time high – I set out to – hopefully – to rekindle my love – albeit adopted – for tamales – and abuse – within a blog – the n-dash.
In the Windy City/Blooming Onion/City of Big Shoulders/2nd City/Hog Butcher of the World/ to name just a few of its appellations, to paraphrase the lovely Cowgirl Clare in The Blues Brothers, “We got both kinds of tamales: Mexican and American.” Tamales are sold in grocery stores and at hot dog/Italian Beef stands. Tamales can be found on food trucks, in Marshall Field’s/Macys’ on State Street and in front of churches. Fresh tamales are on the grocer’s shelf near the deli, frozen in Trader Jose’s freezer aisle and on and on and you don’t stop. Rapture. Mira, there are so many friggin tamales outlets here I’m thinkin it might be time Chicago took on another nickname….but as the blog tag sez, “Too much thinking can ruin a good meal.” Back-story: a non-Wikipeadia history of the Delta/El Norte tamale:
(Should sites for equally wonderfully vernacular foodstuffs launch the Information Superhighway/Internet/World Wide Web/God might one day live up to its billing.) Anyway… This partial (both meanings) list of the eats shouldn’t serve as a guide so much as a beauty pageant and reminder of where I’ve tamaled, since I don’t care to repeat myself even though I do repeat myself and am currently cognitively impaired via sleep deprivation con mi El Nino Oscar who hopefully one day will share my love of masa – he’s not adopted and quite a bit of labor = love – and wheel me out for a Mother-In-Law Sandwich, which as it looks like remembering my choppers to down one of these South Side jewels is optional.
All pre-made, store bought Mexi-Ts are wrapped in inedible cornhusks while the Deltas arrive in either tin foil or waxy paper. Both require the same re-cooking time, being premade off-premise: roughly a minute in the microwave per tamale in ozone depleting plastic grocery bag for the store bought. The Deltas too get nuked. Then served. From Chicago Hot Dog/Beef Stands:
Nicky’s Hot Dogs The first Delta tamale I tried lives on the West Side and on the “Sides” section of the menu @ Nicky’s near Midway Airport. Figuring this wax paper tube for a novelty I didn’t bother with an iPhoto. While the dog was a slight disappointment the tamale definitely gave dormant neurons from the 70s a jolt. The masa was gritty like grits but good and sweet, nicely contrasted against the red-hot chili power ground beef. Perhaps a bit too crumbly for my fork. (Note: flatware is recommended these Delta tubes are served up lava hot.) Portillo’s Word auto-corrects the name of this Chi-town legend to Portfolios that would not be a bad nickname in this city of nicknames. Ever so diverse, Portillo’s hits every corner of Chicago-style eats. It’s like the perfect Mutual Fund of Second City sustenance. Which is why when I stole off to feed a late evening post-pregnancy Italian beef craving lo and behold tamales here too were offered as a “side”. Tempted, as I was to slap the tamale into the beef – re-booting the gym shoe: The Gym Boot? – I instead ate it separately, dilettantely, with a spoon, the spoon used only to protect my fingers from the heat. Not crumbly tat all, fillipin’ sticky, firm and dulce masa perfection (again, grittier than its primo down yonder). And hey, do I detect, cloves & all spice? Cincinnati chili enthusiasts be warned. Chicago may not have a 100+ MPM Cuban freak for a closer – yet – but throw this tamale on a pile of spag, add cheese, beans…so I guess what I’m getting at is why I get they’re sides: what Delta Tamales possess in a flavorful smack down they do lack in filler-up-ness. Better to make your next order a dozen.
Al’s Beef Feasting on my third trip down to the sides section of a dog/beef stand menu to the Delta for a tamale I stopped and thought: is it possible these are all made off premise in the same factory? Because like the tamale from Nicky’s, this one came in its own packaging: Nicky’s: Proustian/kitchy wax paper, Al’s: The Graduate/flesh melting plastic. While Al’s beef has a certain sumpin/sumpin (anise? clove? sweat? = seriously sublime) the tamale was so mediocre in both flavor and texture I chose not to have insulted the beef by bedding the two together. The trash bin finished this tamale for me.
Ahora, on to el versions del los Mexicanos, from the grocer’s shelf: Ponchos (hecho en Chicago) Because these are cooked, then cooled, then shipped, then cooled then bought, then cooked again (nuked by el gring@) one might expect a flavor and texture let down. I did/had. Not the case in the slightest bit ahora. Poncho’s can throw down con the best of them: these tamale estamos El Santo del Lucha Lengua Libre del Chicago. (I like mine with scrabbled eggs and coffee for almuerza). I can only speak for the pork, that is. No fan of shredded beef tamales eso yo: meat a bit too stringy and purple for this hombre. Gimme ground round from the cow every time por favor/gracias.
Trader Jose’s I possess neither a special love nor hate for TJ’s, yet, his foodstuffs continue to get blogged regularly. This is because, why? Twice I’ve holed up in an area lacking anything near close to what I’d considered passable Az-Mex goods: DC. Mostly the Latin@ goods available around the beltway cater to the area’s sizable El Salvadorian population: pupusas, pollos, machetes, etc. So I’d hit up TJ’s for torts when in need of an AzMex dopamine release. Not until Chicago did I finally try their tamales and really only for the purpose of this blog. Why? To confirm that Poncho’s rule. And rule they do. Like much of what TJ’s sells for reheating and eating, their tamales posses – to this palate – the frozen, leftover flavor familiar anyone whose dined on burros, taquitos and Banquet dishes available in your grocer’s freezers everywhere. (Note: I love HDTV diners as much as the next dude. Just expect more from TJs.)
In closing: so far so much further to go. Still to take down: tamale trucks, tamale stands and Rick Bayless. Sing us away Prime Mates….