Unique sides take Tamal center stage
It was a hot tamale lunch at Tamal's with Gainesville Lunch Out Blog Content Editor, Lynn Dirk, and Healthy Eating Columnist and UF Assistant Professor, Michelle Cardel. Michelle was excited as it was her first Tamal experience, and Lynn was contemplating giving the Tamal Spicy Cucumber on a Stick a try. The GLOB Master was thinking tomatillo salsa would make a nice accompaniment to the mild corn meal shells encasing fresh, nothing-but-Mexican flavors, and the side order of black beans.
For your lunch time eatification, Tamal Chef Rachel Iannelli and the Tamal cooking team fly by the seat of their chinos and come up with their tamale choices in the morning and post them on their FaceBook page. Between the three of us we ordered all three tamales available:
The Veg tamale that consisted of poblano chili peppers, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. I added a generous addition of a fabulous tasting homemade tomatillo salsa. MAGNIFICO!
The Chorizo+Potato tamale that Michelle ordered really looked good, however I showed good restraint and stayed away from the diced potatoes.
The Green Mole Chicken tamale was picture perfect with large chunks of chicken slathered with a tomatillo sauce.
Lynn and Michelle both tried the Tamal Cucumber on a Stick. This is a popular Mexican street food style where a piece of fruit or a veggie is coated in lime juice and then dredged in a mild spice mix. Tamal's spice mix on the cucumber is fantastic – it is a startling combination of tartness from the lime, complex flavor from the spice mix that is not hot at all, and refreshing crunchiness from the cucumber.
Two tamales and a Tamal side order make a good sized lunch. The old Professional Eater in me was really trying to talk me into eating a third tamale, however I abstained thanks to the black bean side order.
The surprising lunch time winner was the Tamal Esquite –a cup of delicious fresh cut corn off the cob stewed in a mild cilantro broth, topped with special crema, and a squeeze of lime – the flavors of all melded beautifully in a dish that captures all the primary non-meat ingredients of great Mexican food. CARUMBA!
Lynn was very disappointed there was no mole that day and she hopes that is just because it wasn't on the day's menu. The line of people was out the door so Lynn didn't want to interrupt Rachel to hear whether this was a permanent thing or not. Last time she was at Tamal she had the mole and couldn't stop raving about it. Instead I shared some of my tomatillo sauce with her so she could sauce up her tamale, which she very much enjoyed, except the tomatillo sauce is cold unlike the warm mole. Still, she loved her veggie tamale. And she said she's going back!
Flavors abound in corn meal casings
I have had a serious love affair with Latin American cuisine my entire adult life. When I came to school in Gainesville one of my first, new experiences was the Taco Bell on W. University Ave. They made – and still do, sort of -- delicious beef burritos with a sauce that was new to me called green sauce. Green sauce can be many things to a food lover. To the GLOB Master a delicious tomatillo sauce enhances anything I am eating.
As I prefer the crunch of a hard shell taco and the wonderfulness of chili rellenos, tamales have generally flown under my radar screen, but with a new tamale restaurant in town, I looked up tamale on the web and found a good, short history of tamales on the Austin Times website:
TAMALES can be traced back to pre-Columbian history, as early as 7000 BC, when Aztec women served as battle cooks. A portable yet sustainable food was needed, and tamales could be made ahead of time, packed, and warmed as needed. Wrappings varied from cornhusks to soft tree bark to edible leaves such as those from avocado and banana trees. Even fabric was sometimes used. Today, the most common variety is a tamal composed of masa (hominy flour dough) spread on a corn shuck and filled with either chicken, pork, beef, green chile, cheese, or, more recently, vegetables.
I was feeling like the GLOB's new Eating Adventurer (missing Melissa Kahan :( when I went to TAMAL, Gainesville's first exclusive tamale-only food stand located in the South Main Arts District in the newly-named Power District Development area near the South Main Street fire station.
Tamal is a family-owned business with Rachel Lannelli, her husband Nicholas, and her son Cecil manning the Mexican street food lunch stop. Rachel is Tamal's head cook and menu coordinator. Nicholas rolls tamales and manages the front-of-the-house, and Cecil, an Eastside High School culinary student, is TAMAL's part-time prep cook.
The bright, clean, airy, windows-all-around lunch area was a perfect setting for a tamale experience.
"Tamal is like a food truck with no wheels Mike," Rachel said leaning over the lunch counter, looking me straight in the eye to make sure I understood where I was and what I was eating.
The Tamal Facebook page brags on their chicken, pork, vegetarian, and vegan tamales. They are hand-rolled and served fresh daily with locally-sourced, seasonal side-dishes along with beans, greens and agua fresca beverages -- Horchata, Tamarindo, or a delicious-looking red juice fountain drink called Jamaica -- all made in-house from scratch.
Rachel warned me about Jamaica: "There is a ton of sugar in the Jamaica Mike. That's not for you," the Tamale chef said knowing about my diabetes club membership while she handed me a can of diet soda.
With a few small tables and a lunch counter that seats six, Tamal is an intimate, friendly lunch stop with a very homey feeling. Tamal has only been open for a few months, but I felt like I was at Cheers in Boston, "where everybody knows your name."
Serving lunch Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon until the food runs out, the Lannelli family is enjoying a busy lunch hour and are still trying to figure out feeding all the happy customers.
"We try to guess-timate how many tamales to make for the day," Rachel said. "Sometimes we get swamped with customers and have to close up early because we are out of tamales," she added with a perplexed look on her face. "It's the price we are paying by using locally-sourced produce and wanting to present the best tamales we can."
The Tamal menu is posted on its Facebook page and usually consists of three different tamales, a few side orders, and a standing side of a 'pickled cucumber on a stick.' Recently there was a notice from the tamale trio: "Hey folks! We will be serving our pumpkin seed pesto, carrot, blueberry tamale @ 1:30 today!! It's vegan!!" This note tells me to check the Tamal FaceBook page before lunch.
Rice bowls are available for a mix of salsa, mole, peppers, beans, and corn for a food-in-a-bowl lunch option.
I wanted to order all three tamales available the day I went but realized I couldn't eat that much at one sitting. So I selected the poblano and the chorizo tamales with a side order of marinated cucumber on a stick.
The cucumber is peeled, marinated in lime juice, and rolled in a mix of pepper and red seasoning to create a unique-looking side. Slicing off some of the cucumber and tasting it was amazing: it was a refreshing, delicious, crunchy taste treat."
"Where did you hear about these cukes, Rachel?" I asked.
"I made it up Mike. This is Mexican street food, remember?"
I liked the idea of adding toppings of my choice to the tamales, imager at the top of this review, and was happy to see tomatilla salsa as an option. The tomatilla sauce was freshly made with – surprise to me again – freshly squeezed lime juice for a delightful, tart, lip-smacking flavor.
Thinking the corn meal tamales would need some heat assistance, I also added a side of jalapeno peppers.
I avoided the Tamal mole as my experience with this topping is it usually overwhelms the palette, even though GLOB Staffer Lynn Dirk, who had made it to Tamal before me, highly recommended it.
The somewhat mild tamales, for my taste, were nevertheless very good. All the flavors in the corn husks took their turn on my palette's center stage making me a very happy lunch outer.
My Tamal lunch was very good and reasonably priced at $3 a tamale. There are a lot of tamales in those corn husks waiting to be discovered by the GLOB Master.
The Pluses and Minuses of the Tamal Premiere Tamale Shop:
Tamal Premiere Tamale Shop (+) indicators: Delicious flavors, a veritable different kind of tamale for every customer. The marinated cucumber is certainly worth your consideration and large enough to share. The fresh lime juice brightens the entire meal.
Tamal Premiere Tamale Shop (-) indicators: A few more poblano peppers in my Tamales would have been nice. I will order the mole as a side item next time.
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