July 03, 2005


So when I lived in the Phoenix area my ex-fiance and I used to head out to Ricardo's whenever we had a cold, and actually pretty often when we perfectly healthy.

I think by now the effects of capsaicin on mucous membranes are pretty common knowledge, so we'll dispense with why it was so helpful when you had a cold. I'll just mention that good salsa is both cheaper and more nutritious than most over-the-counter decongestants, and we can move on with this.

We always suspected Ricardo's was owned by Mormons, but this was in those dark times before the internet when you couldn't just trot home and look that up, so I'm not sure--but Ricardo's didn't have a liquor license. That was the down side. It's a little odd munching on chips and salsa and washing them down with a coke.

But there were up sides, like the food.

What made me Ricardo's bitch for life was the green chile tamale, an entire $4.95 with rice and beans, and maybe $1.00 extra to have it covered in green chile sauce and melted cheese.

Then I moved to Dallas and never tasted anything so delicious again, except maybe the grape leaves at Hedary's--maybe.

It's occurred to me that it might be helpful to tell you what tamales are, although then again, maybe not. I never know if I'm being condescending if I suddenly go all Wikipedia on you people, i.e., "a tamale is . . . ." Yes, yes--we know, Ilyka, shut up. My relatives in New York tell me they have Mexican food there now. I mean besides Taco Bell. So maybe this is not news to you; however:

Basically to make a tamale you take corn dough, masa harina, and whip it up with lard or shortening (note: lard's great for biscuits, rice, and pastry, but for this I prefer shortening), and then pat it out into a 3/8"-inch-thick rectangle about 4" x 6", and spoon a little filling down the center (pork is popular, though the variety I'm talking about here is vegetarian, just green chile).

Then, you sort of package it all up so the filling's in the center, and you wrap it in a corn husk and steam it until it's all cooked through.

Now I know the way I just described it makes it sound like mere stuffed cornbread, but tamale devotees know that it is anything BUT stuffed cornbread. The trashiest of the white trash can make you stuffed cornbread, but good tamales are an art.

As someone who's tried and so far failed to make them properly at home, I can tell you: They're simple in concept, easy to screw up in execution. If your masa harina is poor quality, they taste stale. If you don't get just the right balance of fat and harina, they come out too greasy or too crumbly. If you don't steam them long enough, they are doughy in the center. If you steam them too long, they toughen. If you overhandle the dough, they are too dense. If you don't work the dough enough, they won't hold together. And so on.

It is really easy to make bad tamales, is my point. And Dallas restaurants know all about bad tamales.

A Dallas tamale is maybe an inch in diameter--oh, never mind the dimensions and the details; a Dallas tamale looks like the end result of a week of constipation, basically. Dallas tamales are tiny and bullet-like and tough as nails. The pork-to-dough ratio is nauseating; it is like they tried out for the taquito team, didn't make it, and decided to call themselves tamales instead. They are inevitably served with red chile if you're lucky, and chili con carne if you are not. (Dallas does not acknowledge the existence of salsa verde, even though you can buy tomatillos in any supermarket there. But no, your average Dallas chef would rather take those innocent tomatillos and saute them with bok choy and linguine, and open a fusion restaurant.)

You know how the explanation Tolkien gave for the origin of the Orcs was that Melkor perverted a bunch of elves and then bred them, being unable to create any life of his own? That is the Dallas tamale, right there. It is the Orc of the tamale kingdom. It is sad. I gave up ever ordering tamales in Dallas because even to look at one made me cry.

Anyway, the other day I saw a dozen tamales labeled "green chile" in the frozen section of the Albertson's, and naturally I tried to convince myself that they could not possibly be any good, that it would be foolish to buy them, and besides, hadn't the tamale broken my heart enough in the last decade? Then I threw them in the cart anyhow.

It turns out they are good.

They are not Dallas tamales.

They are joyous, fluffy little creations with just enough hot to offset the bland masa, even without sauce and cheese on top.

I will never live anyplace that does not have green chile tamales again.

Posted by Ilyka at July 3, 2005 11:11 PM in were you going to finish that? | TrackBack