I almost couldn’t believe my ears when I was in my favorite bagel establishment this weekend and the old Jewish grandma next to me asked the guy behind the counter to add “a few of those wonderful tamales, please.”
“What tamales? Where? They’re not on the menu.” I start thinking.
“We’re out of them,” he said apologetically, with a wry smile on his face, “You gotta get here before 9am. They go.” What on earth? I love tamales! How did I not know there’s a tamale lady in cahoots with the bagel man? I asked the woman quietly how she knew about this and she said, “Well Dear, I’m here every morning and I see her come in with her bag of tamales. They’re just wonderful.”
There’s also a more well-known tamale lady in the midtown crowd, though she’s also a bit elusive. She sits in front of the Mexican embassy in the mornings until she sells out of her famous Mexican tamales. Sometimes she makes it to lunch, but not usually. A quick search on the internet will yield various inquiries on midtown food blogs, twitter, chowhound etc, asking where the tamale lady might be found, but the answer usually varies.
A third hidden tamale gem, and this irks me, was found by my mother-in-law. One night at dinner she brought them out, wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. “Where on earth did you get these around here?” I asked.
“Foodmart” (an alias so as not to incriminate said store or endanger this tamale lady’s business).
“They do not sell tamales in Foodmart.”
“Yes, but I was buying fish and the butcher behind the counter asked me if I was interested in them. A lady in the next neighborhood over makes them.”
I couldn’t believe it. She found the tamale hookup. Don’t get me wrong here, there are plenty of legitimate businesses that sell tamales, though a lot fewer than you’d think. But there is something about the clandestine tamale cooked by a mother in her own kitchen that is just incomparable. If your ears aren’t open you might not be aware of this underground tamale ring, but if you love food, especially Latin food like I do, you may stumble upon it accidentally.
I’m fully aware of reasons why these businesses remain underground. I know a thing or two about immigration law and other tamale ladies who have been targets of the law whether it’s because they don’t have licences to sell or they themselves are in the country illegally. But today I had a delicious tamale with mole sauce and I thought I’d write a little something in celebration of this wonderful underground food market.