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“¿Te gustaría comprar unos tamales? ¿Tamales?”
I was barely out the door of my favorite Southside carniceria when I heard a woman’s voice behind me quietly pose that magical question. “Would you like to buy some tamales?” I turned and a small, grandmotherly looking Latin woman, still wearing her flowered kitchen apron, was standing next to the open back gate of a red Chevy Luv pointing into the truck bed. As I walked towards her, she reached into an Igloo cooler stationed just inside the tailgate and held up two corn husk-wrapped tamales. “¿Te gustaría comprar unos tamales?”
Until that fateful day, my experience with tamales had been almost entirely limited to the Southern U.S. version known as the Mississippi Delta-style or “hot tamale.” If you’ve had Champy’s tamales then you get the idea. They taste like small beef tamales that have been cooked in canned chili. Don’t get me wrong, I love those things. They’re exactly the type of tamale I grew up eating and I order them every time I go to Champy’s. But this tamale lady was not selling hot tamales; she was selling classic masa tamales. “Puerco y pollo,” she said, “sólo 1 dólar.” Several awkward attempts at Spanish later, I had a sackfull of pork-filled, dollar tamales.
When I say “classic masa tamales”, I do not mean the bloated, mealy lump of corn-flavored dough that appears on a sampler platter in your favorite sub-par “Mexican” restaurant, covered in some unnatural colored sauce and melted “cheese product.” Those bastardized crimes against tamaledom fall on the culinary phylogenic tree somewhere between a Taco Bell enchirito and Chili’s Tex-Mex Grit Casserole.
This tamale lady had real, homemade, grandmother-style tamales. They were puffy, savory pillows of corn dough surrounding slow-cooked, tender pork or chicken; freshly steamed and kept warm nestled inside that big blue Igloo cooler.
I sat in my car, still in the parking lot of the carniceria, and devoured two of these flavor-filled munchies straight out of the bag, without even looking up to notice that the tamale lady had vanished. The Chevy Luv, the cooler, her little white apron and all of those tamales had quietly driven away while I sat in my car, engrossed in a world of masa-flavored wishes and puerco-colored dreams.
I never found that same tamale lady again. The cashier at the carniceria would sometimes repeat rumors in hushed tones that she would return on this day or that…but she never materialized, shattering my hopes of savoring more of those little packets of palate pleasure.
This would be a sad story if it ended there, but there is a happy ending to this tamale tale, and that does not mean you can get a massage with your pork tamale. Tucked away in Latin neighborhoods all around town are carnicerias and guatemaltecas providing foodstuffs from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and South America. My neighborhood guatemalteca has a well-stocked butcher counter with two actual butchers doing actual butchering, not just unpacking meat that’s been pre-cut at a central processing warehouse. They have beautiful produce, cases full of spectacular baked breads and sweets, but most importantly, they have tamales. Right by the cash register is a blue Igloo cooler, sitting on an upside-down milk crate like the Treasure of Lima waiting to reveal its bounty. At least once a week I stop in, lift the lid on that plastic tamal treasury and get my weekly quota of the good stuff.
If you would rather get your tamales from a restaurant instead of an Igloo cooler, your choices for quality tamal are actually more limited. There are very few restaurants in Chattanooga that serve decent tamales. Taqueria Jalisco on Rossville Avenue (not Blvd.) puts out a killer tamale, especially the mole, which is outstanding (that’s MOH/leh as in the sauce, not mole like the animal). Taco Roc serves respectable tamale too, although I’m partial to their tortas, but that’s for another day.
I will leave you with three recommendations:
Don’t confuse hot tamales with classic masa tamales. That’s like confusing Taco Bell with Mexican food.
The best tamales are often bought from the back of a pickup truck.
Go to a carniceria or guatemalteca right now and look for the cooler of tamales. Pro tip: get some fresh chicharrones while you’re there. Trust me, I’m a professional.