Because they were compact and could be made ahead, tamales were ideal food for warriors. They were even considered good enough for the gods: Aztec manuscripts depict women delivering them to temples.
cinnamon, peppered with anise seeds, and studded with pecans, it was like a soft, hot bizcochito.
After you wander the aisles of El Paisano Market off Cerrillos Road, spellbound by the panoply of piñatas strung from the ceiling, head over to the food counter on the far right of the store and ask for a bag of tamales from the refrigerator case. Warmed in the steamer at home, the chile-cheese tamales delivered ideal masa — perfectly cohesive but not at all dense — laced with mild queso and loaded with strips of no-foolin’ Hatch green chile. They’ll wake up your taste buds in a hurry.
While we waited on our (apparently trifling) order at El Parasol, two other customers ordered tamales by the dozens and departed with fully laden bags in each hand. It’s hard to pick a favorite: a satisfyingly spicy red-chile pork, a savory green-chile chicken, or a calabacitas-packed veggie version. The veggie won by a nose — squash, corn, and green chile gave it a pure endof-summer aroma.
Johnnie’s Cash Store is a famed east-side spot known for red and green tamales kept cozy and warm in a countertop steam table. Be sure to come early — supplies dwindle by early afternoon. I was lucky enough to nab one of each, which I tonged into a container and carried off to eat outside. The delicious red — our favorite — had all the great qualities of pulled barbecued pork.
Down on the Plaza, the El Molero food cart is famous for its fajitas, which regularly send steamy clouds of tantalizing meat-and-veggie smoke wafting across the square. But in a tall, well-charred pot they also stock two types of tamales — red-chile-soaked pork and green-chile-studded chicken — that have just the right amount of filling, a pleasant heat, and a heavenly smoky touch. These were the third tamales I sampled on one particular day, and I was sad when they were gone.
Veggie and chicken tamales are even available in the prepared foods section of Whole Foods. Their greenchile chicken version had a deep, satisfying richness and a soulful flavor that recalled, oddly, the very best chicken soup.
This list could go on. Though I’ve managed to sample nearly two dozen of Santa Fe’s tamales, I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface. One great discovery: They’re cheap for the amount of satisfaction you get — I bought tamales from five purveyors in one day, and I spent less than $40 (a la carte tamales range from $1.50 to $4 each, with most coming in around $2.50). For a food fit for warriors and gods, that’s hard to beat.