Michelle's Cafe draws the true tamale lovers


January 04, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

A private chef in Washington had ordered 200 for his "very exclusive" New Year's Eve party. A California transplant living in Baltimore wanted a variety pack of 30 for her own year-end shindig. And a Mexican immigrant, acting out a near-daily ritual, said she'd be buying three of the $1.75 treats, one for now and two for later.

It's always tamale time at Michelle's Cafe in Fells Point, but on Wednesday, as throughout this holiday season, the cornmeal concoctions were practically flying out of the steamer. The cafe on Eastern Avenue usually moves 100 tamales a day; on Tuesday alone, the staff of four churned out 400.

"Which," said co-owner Jesus Mendoza, "is a lot."

Latinos have long felt a deep connection to their tamales, and never more so than around Christmas and New Year's, when families and friends gather to celebrate the season - and eat.

At restaurants, taco trucks and kitchens across the region, tons of tamales are being wrapped up and polished off, not just by Latinos but by legions of Anglo fans, too.

Tamales sound simple to make: Unfurl a corn husk or banana leaf; slather on a doughy corn paste called masa; ladle on the sauce; add chicken, jalapeno pepper or some other filling; wrap it all up and then steam for several hours.

But as any tamale lover will tell you, success lies in the details, given an overabundance of not-so-hot tamales.

In fact, a quest for real Mexican-style tamales was one reason Mendoza and his wife, Iveth Gonzalez, both in their late 20s, opened the cafe in 2006. (They named it for their 7-year-old daughter, Michelle.) To be sure, you can find Mexican-style tamales all over the Baltimore area, including at the Salvadoran restaurants on nearby Broadway. But for the couple, nothing quite measured up.

"We were looking to fill this need," said Gonzalez, sporting a black T-shirt bearing the cafe's boast: "best tamales in town."

It is hard to argue with their claim of authenticity. Take, for example, the mole poblano, a mild brown sauce consisting of dried tortilla, peppers, chocolate, raisins and other ingredients. Her mother makes it in their hometown of Puebla, Mexico, and ships it north.

Joaquin Fajardo, the private chef in Washington, first heard about Michelle's tamales from a client. One bite and he was sold. When he needed tamales for his New Year's Eve bash, he knew where to call.

"I'm a Latino myself. I make my own, and hers are better than mine," Fajardo said by cell phone. Given the demand for high-caliber cuisine at the party he would be catering, "you have to go with the best."

The person most responsible for Michelle's Cafe tamales is Guillermina Molina, Gonzalez's diminutive 40-year-old aunt. She and other members of the family were already living in Baltimore when the young couple left Mexico earlier this decade, making the city a logical destination.

On Wednesday morning, Molina stood in a small room at the back of the cafe, itself a cramped space with just three tables and the television blaring the Spanish-language Univision network.

Molina was waiting as the masa swirled around in a red KitchenAid appliance. The device started the kneading, but Molina would finish it. The dough's main component is a tamale-specific cornmeal bought from a supplier. The cafe adds the lard, salt, water and homemade chicken stock.

After Molina worked the dough with her hands for five minutes, it was ready. She flattened a corn husk that had soaked in hot water and scooped on some masa. Next she ladled on the sauce, in this case a mild adobo, which is dark red and made from dried peppers as well as avocado leaves. She dropped in a few pieces of chicken, added more sauce and then wrapped up the husk and folded over the bottom.

This one was ready for the steamer.

Except for the Puebla-made mole poblano, the sauces are made in-house. One is the adobo, another the salsa verde, a mild green sauce with a base of tart tomatillos. A fourth tamale is rajas, which means "slice" - as in, the slice of jalapeno you get. The sauce is tomato-based, and a piece of cheese often accompanies it. The fifth tamale on the menu is a sweet version.

The sixth and last choice uses a banana leaf wrap instead of a corn husk. The cafe calls it oaxaqueno, for the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Mendoza says it and Veracruz are the only two parts of his country where banana leaves are commonly used.

Tamales are dangerous fare for dieters. Mendoza estimates that each packs 400 calories, though it'd come as no surprise if that were higher. Asked about the fat content, all he could say was, "Whoa."

Some people will request a veggie tamale, thinking it less fattening. Mendoza tells such people that they're all made with lard, which is pork fat. Then he politely makes a suggestion: Buy a salad instead.

On Wednesday morning, as Marcia Sanchez prepared to order a trio of tamales, caloric intake didn't seem to matter. The 22-year-old native of Mexico says she usually eats three a day. Cindy Rand wasn't visibly concerned about calories, either. She lived in California years ago and still misses those tamales.

With friends visiting from North Carolina, Rand had ordered 30 tamales, six of each kind except the sweet ones.

She had never sampled this cafe's goods but had heard rave reviews. "I'm excited," she said with a smile before darting back into the wind holding two straining bags of tamales.

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