There used to be a place near where I worked in lower downtown Denver that made delicious tamales. The old-fashioned kind that were wrapped in corn husks and sold for something like a buck-and-a-half each. I would occasionally walk over and get a dozen for my coworkers and me on a Friday morning. Sometimes I would buy a half dozen or so for a Sunday morning.
For the past few years that we have been coming here in the winter, I have looked for tamales such as these. Many of the Mexican restaurants offer tamales on their menu, but they weren’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted the tamales that were inexpensive, wrapped in those corn husks, smelling delightfully of masa, pork and chili. Restaurants offer tamales sitting on a plate covered in green chili. Probably good, but not what I wanted.
My sister-in-law made tamales for the Mexican feast she hosted on Sunday, and they were very good, filled with Monterey Jack cheese, spinach, and a green chili. I haven’t been able to get my mind off of them since that feast. So yesterday I went on a full-out internet search for someplace in the East Valley that sells tamales.
Eureka. I found Old El Paso Tamales, a little storefront shop near the heavily Hispanic occupied section of Mesa. The reviews were good, and I got my hopes up. I asked Bill if he was willing to take a field trip yesterday after we worked out (for the first time in a month – we deserved a reward). Not surprisingly, he was game.
About s 20-minute ride from our house, the shop was located in an area fairly unfamiliar to us. We found it easily enough, however. As we walked up to the door, I told Bill I probably would have been smart to call ahead and make sure they were open on Mondays. Sure enough, the sign said “Closed Mondays.” Still, it looked like there were customers inside, and indeed, the door was open. The nicest young man helped me as I ordered four tamales – two chicken and chili and two pork. We ate our chicken first, and they were delicious. Very spicy. When I bit into what I thought was the pork, I was surprised to bite into very sweet yumminess. “It tastes exactly like I’m eating an ear of really delicious sweet corn,” I told Bill. I figured out that while I asked for pork, what the proprietor heard was corn. I have never eaten a corn tamale, and it was surprisingly delicious. Sweet as candy.
Needless to say, we took some home to freeze.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at a large Mexican market called Pro’s Ranch Market. It seriously is like entering another country. The first sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was the chickens with intact heads in the meat case. That, and the cow hooves, tongue, and tripe. It was, however, a fun experience. I picked up some instant masa for a tamale-making experience I’m going to have with a friend in a couple of weeks.
Actually, the first sign that I was out of my neighborhood was when I got out of our car that was parked right next to a truck. Inside the truck, which had the windows rolled down, was a woman talking on a cell phone. As I walked by the truck, I heard her say, “Well, now that they have my fingerprints, they will find out about my drug charge.” There you have it. Why I never give my fingerprints…..
The Old El Paso Tamale shop proprietor gave Bill and me a sample of his green chili. I was surprised and happy to see that his green chili was made using ground beef. Ground beef is, of course, not typical in green chili, but it was typical of green chili in Leadville, where I first became familiar with Mexican food. My sister Jen makes excellent green chili with ground beef. Here is her recipe.
Jen’s Green Chili
1 lb. ground beef
1 onion, chopped
5-6 fresh, roasted green chilis
1-16 oz. can whole tomatoes
1 T. flour
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Brown the ground beef with the chopped onion and salt and pepper. Drain grease. Place fresh chilis in the bottom of a blender. Add tomatoes to blender, along with a half a can of water. Blend for a few seconds. Add flour to ground beef and incorporate. Stir in tomato mixture, garlic, and pinch of salt and pepper. Simmer until flavors have blended, about an hour.
Nana’s Notes: I had never tasted green chili until moving to Leadville in 1973. Ground beef in the chili is the way my family learned to make it. It’s very unusual to run into it in a restaurant. The proprietor was very pleased that I commented on it favorably. The spiciness in the green chili is entirely dependent upon the chilis. Some are hotter than others. My family mostly likes it pretty darn hot. She always gets her chilis in the fall when they are roasting Hatch’s green chilis. Surprisingly, you can’t get New Mexico green chilis in Arizona. Or at least I haven’t found them.