On Saturday morning at 10:30, there are around a dozen people eating tamales and drinking atole in the steamy little restaurant called Doña Tere Tamales on Bellaire near Highway 6. The aroma of hot tamales grabs you by the nose the second you walk in the front door. It smells like Christmas morning.
I didn't start eating tamales until I moved to Texas 33 years ago. Since then, I've made up for my misspent youth by eating tamales topped with chili for Halloween, turkey stuffed with tamales for Thanksgiving and tamales slathered with hot sauce on Christmas morning.
Now, as soon as we have our first cold snap, I start obsessing about where I'm going to get my holiday stash. Sometimes I make my own. But if you've ever attempted the task, you know it's monumental. It's a much better idea to find a reliable supplier. I've scored great tamales in gas stations, convenience stores and Mexican bakeries. But Doña Tere is one of the few establishments I've seen in Houston that's dedicated solely to tamales.
The first time I stopped by was a few months ago, and there was only one table in the place. It sat empty, and the manager looked lonely. Back then, Doña Tere sold mostly takeout. He told me it sold 200 or 300 tamales a day, and 600 or 700 on weekends. At that rate, I didn't figure the place would last long.
But on this visit, the joint is jumping. The floor plan has been reconfigured to accommodate seven tables and an expanded counter. The people seated at the tables are eating tamales and chatting in Spanish. We walk up to the counter and order everything on the menu, which consists of four kinds of tamales, two sauces and one beverage. On the weekends, the restaurant is now producing a thousand tamales a day, the man behind the counter tells me.
The tamales cost $1 apiece. Ordinarily, I would complain that this is a lot of money for one tamale (or tamal, to be more accurate). The average Texas tamale peddler charges five or six bucks a dozen. But the tamales at Doña Tere aren't your average Tex-Mex tamales. These are Mexico City-style tamales, and each one is three to four times bigger than the local variety. Tex-Mex tamales contain a tablespoon or two of masa, the corn dough that tortillas and tamales are made of, spread on a corn shuck and filled with about a teaspoonful of pork. The Doña Tere version has closer to a third of a cup of masa and a couple tablespoons of filling.
The tamale filled with pork and green chile sauce is outstanding. But so is the one stuffed with chicken and mole. To make each one of these excellent tamales even better, you can buy an extra cup of both sauces for dipping. The dark, sweet mole sauce is as thick as Hershey's chocolate syrup and nearly as rich. The green sauce is an eye-opener -- tart and very hot. The jalapeño-and-cheese tamale is pleasant enough, drenched in green sauce. I like the sauces so much, I'm tempted to eat the strawberry-and-raisin tamale dipped in green sauce too.
The beverage at Doña Tere is a Styrofoam cup full of atole. Atole is a hot, thick drink that's been consumed in Mexico for thousands of years. It's made with masa, just like tamales and tortillas. At Doña Tere, they serve the chocolate-flavored atole that is commonly known as champurrado. Traditionally flavored with Mexican chocolate, the Mexican raw brown sugar piloncillo and anise seed, it's a wonderful spin on hot chocolate. But I drink half a cup of the stuff and lose interest. It's a filling instant breakfast that hits the spot when you aren't eating anything. But with tamales, the starchy drink is too much of a good thing.
Tamales with hot sauce is a pretty substantial breakfast, one of my favorites; the beverage I crave with it is coffee. Since this restaurant doesn't have any, I set off across the shopping center on foot to see what I can find.
A few doors down, I come across an empty restaurant called El Jarrito where a couple of people are working in the kitchen, getting ready for lunch. The menu boasts "authentic Mexican food." The manager is a Salvadoran lady named Imelda. I ask her why she's serving authentic Mexican food instead of authentic Salvadoran food. She offers to whip me up the Salvadoran stuffed tortilla specialty called a pupusa on the spot. But I have promises to keep and tamales to eat. I see, however, that the women have a pot of coffee brewed. I talk Imelda into selling me a cup, even though the restaurant isn't really open yet.
Coffee in hand, I return to my table at Doña Tere Tamales and attack my tamale breakfast with renewed vigor.
Doña Tere Tamales is part of a confusing Houston restaurant-family empire. In the back of Doña Tere Tamales on Bellaire, there is a portrait of the late Doña Tere Gonzalez. The Mexican-American woman started making and selling tamales with her son Pedro, who now owns the restaurant. His younger brother, Roberto Gonzalez, is the manager.
I discovered Doña Tere Tamales after eating lunch at another Houston restaurant called Doña Tere (10890 Westheimer, 832-242-7373), owned by Pedro and Roberto's sister, who shares her mother's name, Tere, short for Teresa. Doña Tere on Westheimer is a little bit like El Jarrito, the authentic Mexican restaurant run by Salvadorans. Only in this case, the restaurant sells inauthentic Tex-Mex and is run by folks from Mexico City.
"Do people even eat fajitas in Mexico City?" I asked the proprietor, who's from the Mexican capital.
"So many people started asking for fajitas in Mexico City that we started making them," he said. "Only we didn't bother with the fajita meat. We just grill steaks and chop them up." This variety of faux fajitas, made with cheap sirloin rather than skirt steak, is exactly what's offered at Doña Tere on Westheimer. There are also some rather ordinary flautas and chicken dishes. All in all, I found the food pretty boring -- except for the big fat tamales, which turned out to be from Doña Tere's sister restaurant, Doña Tere Tamales, which is run by sister Tere Jr.'s brothers. (Have you got that straight?)
After sampling the tamales, I immediately drove to the Bellaire restaurant to see if I could buy a dozen. It was Tuesday, the only day they're closed. I've since returned several times for tamales, both to eat there and to take home. They taste fine reheated, but there's nothing like eating tamales fresh out of the steamer.
So here's what I recommend: Drive out to Doña Tere's some weekend morning. Be sure to stop at your favorite coffee spot along the way and pick up a large cup to bring with you. Roberto Gonzalez doesn't mind. Buy a couple of fresh tamales for breakfast. (Bet you can't eat four.) Then sit down and enjoy them with your coffee, making sure you don't forget the dipping sauces. On your way out, pick up a dozen or so to reheat later for your family and friends. And pick up another dozen to freeze for the holidays. Actually, you better make that two dozen. At this time of year, you can never have too many tamales.
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