Gran Cocina Latina,
Maricel E. Presilla calls tamales “gift-wrapped packages enclosing centuries of culinary wisdom.” She notes that the Spaniards were the first to provide a record of tamales, when they encountered them in Cuba in 1492. Later, in the 16th century, they found Aztecs in Mexico making them. Cooks filled tamales with beans or chiles for everyday eating, but because they were compact and could be made ahead, tamales were ideal food for warriors, who enjoyed more elaborate stuffings like meat, fish, turkey, amaranth, and wild cherries. Tamales were even considered good enough for the gods: Illustrations from 16th-century Aztec manuscripts depict women delivering them to temples.
The modern tamale is still a wonderful thing: succulent masa enclosing a hunk of gooey, salty cheese or a layer of saucy chile-braised meat, all nestled in a bundle of corn husks. I’m pretty sure your deity of choice would be happy if you laid one at his or her feet.
We should feel lucky, then, to live in a town with such a wide selection of these compact packets of goodness. Ask Santa Feans for their favorites, and you’re likely to get as many answers as you have friends. The most common combinations are red chile and pork, green chile and chicken, and green chile with cheese — sometimes with vegetables or beans thrown in for good measure. Tamales make an appearance on the menus of nearly all our beloved institutions — Tia Sophia’s, Tomasita’s, and Atrisco, for example. We enjoyed Maria’s pork-laden version as well as the vegetarian option, stuffed with cheese and corn and calabacitas. Blue Corn Café’s tamales surprised us with their fluffy masa, tender abundant pork, generous stretchy cheese, and powerful chile.
Naturally, Posa’s — which has been making tamales since the 1950s — reigns supreme. The red chile pork is fatty and rich — its wrapper glistened in the sun of the Zafarano Drive parking lot — and the masa is nearly saturated with ruby-red chile. One of their meat-free versions is thoroughly loaded with stretchy, melted, mild cheese — an excellent balance for the tongue-tingling green chile.
Alicia’s Tortilleria, tucked in a tiny strip of shops around the bend from Meow Wolf, is one of Santa Fe’s hidden gems. You can walk away with a huge bag of tortillas for eight bucks, and the tamales are big and steaming-hot. The masa of our red-chile pork tamale was soft and mild, but the meat was sparse and a little tough. The alluring aroma of a dulce tamale made us forget those shortcomings, though. Seasoned with