IF BEHIND EVERY great man is a fantastic woman, then behind the great Tamale Boy are some incredible aunties. Tamales aren't about flash: They lack the strutting peacock presentation of a taco, all seared meats and bright salsas on full display. Tamales are a comfort food produced by abuelas and tias, a demure dish that only reveals its inner magic after being eased out of its plain banana leaf or beige cornhusk wrapping. Factor in that unskilled makers often craft them far too dry, and a tamale becomes easy to pass up in favor of other Mexican favorites.
That changes now. I've long been a fan of Tamale Boy, which started as Mayahuel Catering—a tribute to an Aztec female deity of nourishment and fertility. When white folks couldn't remember the name, they started calling founder Jaime Soltero "tamale boy." A truck was born. For years, Soltero shelled out banana leaf- and cornhusk-encased masa bundles—based on family recipes and hand-assembled by his aunts—at various locations. So when I heard he was putting down roots in Woodlawn (my 'hood!), I was elated.
The food and prices do justice to the area's working-class roots. Tamales run $3.50 for the Northern Mexico cornhusk variety to $4.50 for the Southern Mexico banana-leaf numbers. Each has its advantages, but I'll admit a strong bias for the Oaxaqueños banana-leaf variety. The Southern Mexican tamales are moister, denser, more flavorful, and more substantial. Nowhere was this better showcased than with the mole negro tamale, filled with chicken and a traditional black mole that's excellently spiced and far from cloying (a common problem with mole sauces). Top it with roasted tomato salsa and pickled onions, then savor the bites where the mole has soaked into the masa.
The mole was less successful in a burrito special ($8), to which I added carne asada—put that in a taco instead ($2.50 for most, $3.50 for steak) and you won't be disappointed. The burrito was heavy on the rice, which soaked up all the mole and dissolved the flavor. The carb hit put me into a deep food coma during the last half of the Blazers' epic Game Six against the Rockets. (I roused for that game-winning shot!) The Burrito Del Mar special ($10), made up for it: a shrimp burrito with black beans, rice, pico de gallo, and other goodies topped with a white wine cream sauce that was better than it had any right to be.
Sides are kept warm and scooped out to order, which isn't a problem for the arroz Mexicano ($2) or the frijoles puercos ($2), a smoky pinto bean dish cooked up with bacon, ham, chorizo, chopped onion, and chipotle. In the near future, I plan to order a mess of those beans, some tortillas, and an avocado and just go to town. The warming situation is less successful for the third side, esquites ($2)—corn kernels roasted in chipotle margarine, garlic, onion, and epazote—which came out tasting canned. Both vegetarian tamales need a substantial punch of spices, but a taco with mushrooms and spinach was so complexly layered with cumin and chili powders that it bested several meat offerings.
On to the Norteño cornhusk tamales. They're just not my favorite. But with a bit more leveling of the filling-to-masa ratio, they'd be right up there. The chile verde, pork cooked in a green tomatillo sauce, is the best of the three, while an inch-plus layer of masa around my tinga de pollo tamale absolutely overwhelmed the chipotle chicken. Fortunately, the low prices and moderate size mean you'll want to order a couple tamales or tacos and a few sides, so you can choose your own tasty adventure.
Throw in a margarita if you're feeling fancy; all drinks are $9. Or get a Negra Modelo and a shot of mezcal, because that's going to be even better. Eat out on the ginormous patio and linger if it's sunny. On your way out the door, don't forget to give a nod to the massive jungle mural done in greens and blues—that otherworldly looking being near the pyramids is Mayahuel.
Tues–Fri 11 am–9 pm, Sat 10 am–10 pm, Sun 10 am–3 pm. (All closing times are qualified with an "ish" online.) Brunch Sat-Sun 10 am–3 pm. Full bar. Catering, bulk orders available.