Now popular during end-of-year Christian holidays, the tamale—made with nixtamalized corn and stuffed with savory fillings—was a staple of festive events in Mesoamerica for tens of thousands of years, and any person laying claim to its mastery risks a level of scrutiny millennia in the making.
So it is that at the SFR offices in late November, a shocking upset occurred during a blind tamale taste test. We purchased three of the red chile pork variety: One from a gas station, one from Mexican-themed supermarket El Paisano (3140 Cerrillos Road, 424-9105), and one from the Southside Posa's (3538 Zafarano Drive, 473-3454), the famed tamale maker in town conventionally regarded as the best. Tasters had to guess where each tamale came from. They were all delicious, but like blind wine tastings that embarrass connoisseurs of expensive vintages, the results were completely upside down.
Three unbiased tasters agreed that the gas station tamale was the best: crumbly and moist enough. They complained that the corn used in the tamale from Posa's—which the tasters incorrectly pegged as gas station in origin—tasted cheap, like it had soaked in chile too long. The tamale from El Paisano appeared to be the most homemade, and was universally regarded as the second-place winner. Call it groupthink or blame it on a bad batch, but these results needed explanation.
The gas station-souced tamale came from a Phillips 66 store, next to Upper Crust Pizza in Eldorado (7 Colina Drive, 466-3509). Raelynn Valencia, an assistant manager at the convenience store, says it sells dozens of green chile chicken and red chile pork tamales a day, at $2.50 for two or $15 per dozen. The store purchases the tamales from Albuquerque-based Foods of New Mexico, a company that manufactures traditional New Mexican foods for distribution at hundreds of supermarkets, restaurants and broadliners in 38 states.
Sold under the Authentic New Mexican brand, you can find Foods of New Mexico tamales at Santa Fe grocery stores like Walmart, Albertsons and Smith's. Dennis Carpenter, the business' president, says a kitchen of 120 employees makes New Mexico foods every weekday. Asked if he was surprised by the taste test results, he said: "I'm a little surprised, but not a lot because we make them like we would make them at our house."
The El Paisano supermarket, which has a butchery and a small kitchen and sells imports from Mexico, has been around for a little over two decades and has sold tamales the entire time. Store manager Moises Tarango tells SFR people can buy them at $6.50 per half dozen all year, but sales pick up around Thanksgiving through early January. Tarango says they're made "from scratch" by five different cooks, who use meat from the store's butchery for the fillings.
"Last year we sold out before the end of the year, because the demand was way too high," Tarango says.
The tamale taste upset was particularly surprising because the Posa's red chile pork is what catapulted that family institution to local fame. Jeff Posa, the restaurant's owner, remembers selling his grandmother's tamales as a boy in front of the Roundhouse, when she made them out of the El Merendero café on Santa Fe Avenue. Today the Posa's Restaurant's main location on Zafarano has freezers stocked with tamales made at the business' tamale factory on Rodeo Road. They sell for $26.95 a dozen.
Posa tells SFR the tamales aren't made with masa harina, the flour that goes into most mass-produced tamales, but from actual corn. Their chile has come from a farm in Garfield, New Mexico, for 50 years. The red chile pork has won multiple awards. How does he respond to others' claims that Posa tamales may not, in fact, be the best in town?
"I tell them do a side by side test," Posa says.
Well, we called that bluff.
The upshot is we learned that Santa Fe has a number of exceptional tamale options, which is the more important lesson for the holiday season.
(Answers: 1. Posa's; 2. Gas station; 3. El Paisano)