When I was a university student, my anthropology professor claimed that the first takeout food in North America was the tamale, or tamal, as it is called in the Nauhatl language of southern Mexico.
In case you’ve never been in a 7-Eleven anywhere in the Southwest, a tamale is a wonderfully simple, or dreadfully complicated, food, depending on what’s in it. The basic version is masa, or pounded corn, steamed in the husk. Add sugar, fruit, coconut, or any of a number of meats, stews, fish or vegetables, and presto. You’ve got a takeout meal of infinite sophistication and variety.
- Espee’s Gourmet Tamales
- 4275 S. Durango Dr. 492-1400.
- Open Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
- Suggested dishes: pozole soup, sm. $4.99, lg. $9.98; tamales, $3.99; chile relleno, $3.99; sopaipillas, $3.25.
And make sure you try one at Espee’s Gourmet Tamales, a boxy restaurant on the far westside, owned by a woman named Esperanza Howell, herself a native of Mexico. The concept is a doozy: high-concept tamales, with surprise fillings from eggplant Parmesan to caramel apple, as well as the usual favorites, such as pork, chicken and beef.
But as the venerable downtown institution, Dona Maria’s Tamales, teaches us, tamales alone do not a restaurant make. So Howell has tricked out her menu with snack dishes of considerable repute, such as the sope, nachos and something she calls puff tacos. There is more to say about those, presently.
I’ve eaten here twice now, and enjoyed both meals, but caveat emptor: When the place is full, the kitchen can be alarmingly slow. The décor couldn’t be simpler. There are two levels of tables—normal ones, where your feet touch the floor, and high ones, where they don’t. Pulsating Latin music reverberates over the sound system. The room is spotless.
You order at the counter and then proceed to the imaginative salsa bar, containing such innovations as chipotle cream, jalapeño cream and mango salsas, as well as a hot, tasty salsa and a bland, mild one. If you crave more spice, there are bottles of Cholula, a Mexican hot sauce, on all the tables.
The natural starting place on this menu may be tamales, but I prefer to start a meal here with one of these homemade soups. Albondigas, the classic Mexican meatball soup, has a nice tang to it, chock full of diced carrots, potatoes, and golf ball-sized meatballs. If you like a more ethnic version of the soup, this ain’t it. There is precious little cumin in it, and it’s safe to say the soup was made with non-Mexicans in mind.
Pozole is the more ethnic of the two soups served here, and the more delicious. Espee is doing something unusual here, using pumpkin seeds and tomatillos in her broth, based on hominy (large corn kernels) and pork. She then adds chopped cilantro, onions, radish and cabbage to it before garnishing it with a lime wedge. It may be the single best thing here.
Now you’re ready for your tamales.
These are fairly large, so two make for a nice lunch. I wasn’t keen on the one made with chicken mole, the famously complex sauce that uses dozens of spices and powdered chocolate. The sauce was tasty but intense, so much so that it actually overwhelmed the minced chicken filling.
One of the most delicious tamales here is green chile and cheese. All the meats are tasty, too, especially the pork. Incidentally, Espee uses yellow masa, as opposed to the white masa relied upon by Central American restaurants.
That brings us to what she calls her puff taco. This isn’t a taco shell, really, but rather a deep-fried masa patty, colored a nice golden brown, but on the oily side. The restaurant is hip enough to use a trans fat-free oil for frying, but this is hardly a diet food, slathered in a mishmash of the meat of your choice, guacamole, jack and cheddar cheese, and lettuce.
In fact, if I eat anything fried here, it’s going to be the chile relleno, a nice example of the genre, oozing cheese, coated in a tender egg batter, and topped with tomato salsa. The relleno is available in a combo, with refried beans and a slightly dry Mexican rice pilaf. I can’t complain about it one bit, but like everything else here, it is gringo mild.
A few other items fill out Espee’s menu. Sopes, fat corn tortillas from Guadalajara, are topped with a choice of chorizo sausage or shrimp. Yes, there are quesadillas, overkill if you add guacamole and sour cream at no extra charge. And of course there are nachos, an ultimate inner child food if there ever was one. Does anyone eat nachos in Mexico? Don’t bet on it.
Espee’s serves real margaritas, frozen or on the rocks, regular, mango or strawberry, or various cold ones, imported and domestic. For dessert, there are sopaipillas, fried pillows of dough that you eat with cinnamon and honey, or the caramel apple tamale, an eccentric choice, but an appealing one.
There is also free WiFi in here, for those of you who aren’t into archaeology.