Food Fight: Battle Tamale
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
That special time of year is quickly approaching again, whether we're ready for it or not. That's right: It's almost tamale time!
Tamales at Christmas are a tradition not only in Houston, but in nearly every single area of the world that enjoys tamales. In places like Trinidad -- where tamales are called pastelles -- they're seen almost exclusively at Christmas, in fact. When Eating Our Words was young, the female members of our family would gather at an aunt's house after Thanksgiving and begin the annual tamale-making process to ensure we'd have enough for the entire family at Christmas.
Making tamales is a long and time-consuming, but keenly enjoyable process. There's nothing quite like being covered in lard and pork at the end of the day, hands and back aching, but with a fat batch of perfectly-prepared tamales fresh out of the steamer as a reward for your efforts. Our family made tamales the old-fashioned way: dried corn husks soaked in water, masa prepared from scratch, spoons instead of plastic masa spreaders. We weren't terribly efficient, but damn if the things didn't taste amazing.
And because even with new technologies like pre-mixed masa and pre-cooked pork, making tamales is still a time-consuming process that requires buying ingredients in bulk, it simply doesn't make sense to only make a few at once. And as a result, you'll find the best tamales in town for purchase in stores by the dozen -- not on a plate by themselves with rice and beans -- handmade by the ladies who run the store, incredibly fresh every day. For this week's Food Fight, we pitted two of the finest bulk tamale purveyors in town against each other. Read on for the results.
There's a reason Alamo Tamale Factory won the Houston Press Best of Houston® award for Best Tamales back in 2008: The tamales are pefectly plump and filled with just the right amount of savory pork. The important masa-to-meat ratio is always precise here, with the meat incredibly moist and well-seasoned. You won't need any of the incredibly benign salsa that's served alongside your tamales, owing to the grease that seeps out from the filling (which, at times, can be a little on the heavy side -- but it's a price we're willing to pay).
At $9.50 for a dozen tamales, these are the more expensive of the two restaurants. But it's a bargain when you consider how many happy people you could feed with those 12 tamales. There are also chicken tamales available, but who wants chicken tamales? No one, that's who.
Porra's offers tamales for a mere $8 a dozen, but that extra $1.50 is noticeable when you get your sack of tamales. They're much smaller than the Alamo tamales, with far less meat. The masa-to-meat ratio is heavy on the masa side (not bad if -- like us -- you enjoy "deaf" tamales with no filling) and the meat inside isn't nearly as tender or flavorful as the meat at Alamo.
That's not to say the tamales at Porra's are bad. But we'd suggest trying one of their other menu items, such as the immense and decadent tortas at just $3, or gorging yourself on packs of freshly-baked mantecadas or ojarascas.
Alamo Tamale Factory is a true tamale workhorse, turning out untold dozens of delicious tamales every day. If you're like us and no longer make tamales at Christmas every year, you'll want to go ahead and place your order for the holiday season at Alamo now while you still can, and pick up a few packs for yourself while you're there.
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