Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.
I love tamales. I love them all. Even vegetarian ones. Even grocery store ones. Even sorta dry ones (though, obviously, I prefer the moist varieties).
In grad school in Missouri, I missed tamales so much that I'd stock up on the frozen variety from Trader Joe's. It was as close as I could get to the Tex-Mex tamales of my home state, and though they were far from authentic, they were passable. Now that I'm back in Texas (thank God/Willie Nelson), I order tamales every time I see them on a menu. Irma's and La Mexicana's are some of my favorites, but I recently discovered a new tamale-esque dish that is way up there on my roster of best tamales in town.
At Andes Cafe, chef David Guerrero makes a traditional Peruvian tamal de puerco that rocks my world. It's pretty different from the Tex-Mex tamales we're used to, but it's different in all the right ways.
It's essentially an oversized tamale made with the most flavorful and moist masa I've ever encountered. Frequently, masa is merely a vessel to contain shredded pork or chicken, but in this case, I'd eat a solid block of that masa, not stuffed with anything.
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The fillings do make it all the better and more interesting, though. There's seasoned shredded pork, hard-boiled eggs, and kalamata olives--not your usual Tex-Mex flavor combination, but very traditional in Peru. It's served with a salsa criolla (red onions, yellow aji peppers and cilantro that have been marinating in lime juice) sprinkled festively on top.
When you slice into the tamal--and you must use a knife and fork to eat this behemoth--the fillings start to ooze out between the cracks in the juicy masa. Pour some salsa on top and let it happen. Mix all the elements together in one big bite, using the masa to bind it. There's a dish of puréed salsa on the side, a citrusy and spicy accompaniment to the salsa criolla. Mix that in as well for the ultimate flavor and texture combination.
In spite of the lack of raw seafood or even choclo (two very common elements in Peruvian food), this, to me, is the epitome of that country on a plate. And even though chef Guerrero is himself from Ecuador, the man works wonders with the cuisine of all of South America.
The list so far: No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette