From the moment I saw Chef Tommy Birdwell's tamales plated and handed over to eager guests, I knew he'd brought his A-game to last Thursday night's Tequila & Tamales event at Xuco Xicana. Each corn husk had been tied and butterflied open with a flourish, showcasing the rust-colored tamales inside.
At first glance, I thought the deep-orange hue came from something like an achiote pork filling, but I was wrong. Birdwell's twist on the traditional tamale went further than that: Instead of corn masa, he'd made a sweet potato masa that hid a filling of rich, fatty duck.
So it was no surprise that evening, as we tallied nearly all 200 votes, that Birdwell's tamales from his restaurant, TQLA, had come out in first place. The crowd cheered loudly, claps and whoops reflecting the wide margin of votes cast for the nuevo Southwestern/Tex-Mex joint on Washington.
TQLA's tequilas also did justice to their namesake restaurant, garnering an impressive second place with a hibiscus-mint blend that was refreshing and light. But that was far from the most creative tequila cocktail of the evening.
El Gran Malo owner Steve Sharma had been fussing with a nitrous canister prior to competition, with a rather serious look on his face as he worked. I didn't want to bother him to ask why, but found out at evening's end how the gastrocantina had worked its magic on the Riazul tequila used by all six restaurants for competition.
"We couldn't bring our own infusions," he explained. "And our house infusions take up to two weeks." So Sharma figured out how to force-infuse the Riazul silver with a nitrous oxide canister -- the same used for making whipped cream at coffee shops -- and created an entirely new blend for the event: blueberry-vanilla with habanero. The margarita smelled like a blueberry cobbler but burst like a tiny firecracker in the back of your throat with each sweet sip.
As expected, El Gran Malo's creation won first place by a very large margin of votes, with Pico's Mex-Mex bringing up the rear in both categories: third place in tequilas and second place in tamales, with its banana leaf-wrapped choices of either pork or chicken.
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Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen's silky smooth masa seemed to be a favorite too, garnering praise for its traditional feel and flavor. And Berryhill's traditional corn and spinach tamales were a crowd favorite for the nostalgia factor, while Xuco Xicana's tamales -- said Chef Jonathan Jones -- had been cooked up by the little old abuelitas he employs for exactly those skills.
The 200 free tickets to the event went fast on Thursday night, making it one of Eating Our Words's best food events to date. If you missed it, don't fret; the popularity virtually ensured we'll be doing another Tequila & Tamales event -- as well as another Wingtoberfest -- next year.