After weeks of lurking on the various New York boards and never ceasing to be impressed at the knowledge of you Chowhounds, I think you (and probably nobody else) might appreciate some suggestions for the most interesting street tamales in Manhattan – “interesting” does not necessarily mean tasty, but frankly to me interesting or surprising beats good anytime.
For a research project, I have spent the past few weeks in the delightful company of Manhattan’s tamale ladies – and of course I took every opportunity to savor their treats. While all the tamales I came to taste were enjoyable, some stood out. But first, here’s a very short, but essential introduction for every new tamale eater:
An important thing you need to know is that “the filling is really only a flavoring – the main event is the corn itself, its flavor and texture.” So far Nicholas Gilman in his guide on Mexico City’s food. A tamal with a small amount of filling is not a bad tamal; if the filling is subtle or rich, and the corn has the right consistency and taste, it should beat a tamal soaked in sauce or meat anytime. Secondly, tamales are steamed for many hours, which makes them a reliably hygienic dish – whether in New York or in Mexico’s dusty streets. So, don’t be afraid, just give them a try – nothing bad will happen to you!
Now, here’s the list with the most interesting tamales you will find in Manhattan. None of them cost more than $1.25. And in addition to those mentioned, all the vendors of course also sell the “usual suspects” (mole rojo, verde, pollo, puerco, rajas con queso, etc.). As far as I can tell, none of the vendors has received any coverage on this board until now:
1) 137th Street & Broadway (east side of Broadway, next to park) – schedule for both vendors: 5 to 6 days per week, 2-10pm: Coming out of the subway, you will find two vendor carts: on the one hand a couple (man and woman) who are selling a large variety of tamales. The best: mole poblano (home-made, subtle, as always with chicken), tamales oaxaqueños picantes (these are with extremely spicy mole rojo with pork, wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk), and tamales dulces (sweet tamales, with pieces of raisins and pine apple – a bit like marzipan, but less heavy and sweet). Standing nearby, there is a lone woman vendor, very shy: her tamales are probably the most authentic, coming closest to what you will find in Oaxaca. Outstanding: mole poblano (which are – as in Oaxaca – wrapped in a banana leaf; rather mild, not rich, but interestingly, they are flavored with hierba santa – an anis type herb, very characteristic, a bit spicy).
2) East 116th Street & Third Avenue (southwestern corner) – hours: every morning, 7-10am. Extremely sympathetic, small woman. Sells by far the best mole rojo – extremely complex flavor, on some days seems closer to mole poblano than to rojo, with pork meat, rather spicy. Also excellent tamales dulces, neither fat nor too sweet.
3) East 110th Street & Lexington (northwestern corner, in front of green a grocer, called La Malinche) – hours: most mornings, 8-10.30am: Elderly woman, very warm personality. Sells by far the largest and juiciest tamales of all venders. Most interesting: guajillo (type of red pepper, very spicy and strong, very unusual, in a banana leaf); hierba santa (with cheese, if I remember correctly – terrific, unusual); wonderfully intense mole poblano. Special mention must go to her beverages: most tamale ladies offer only arroz con leche (hot liquid milk rice) or champurrado (a Mexican type of hot chocolate, thickened with corn flour). Additionally, this vendor often has wonderful avena (hot liquid oatmal in milk) and granillo (hot wheat in thick pine apple juice – no milk) – both are hard to find in New York.
4) East 110th Street & Third Avenue (northwestern corner) – hours: most mornings, 7-10am: the only tamale lady in Manhattan who vends tamales de elote (sweet corn tamales) – not everyday, but usually Wednesdays. Sells the best tamales con rajas (cheese with green pepper stripes), also fine mole poblano. This woman also takes orders for any other type of Mexican food, everything home-made (including tortillas!).
You may worry that publishing these women’s vending locations and times in a public forum might get them into legal trouble. Almost all these women have a personal food vending license, but none of them has a food cart permit. Believe me: The police are well aware of that, they know their hours and locations and drown them in fines. This is not going to change, yet the women thankfully continue to sell.
One last thing: Almost all these vendors are extremely passionate about food and Mexican cuisine. If you can, talk to them about their tamales, the million spices they use, any other dishes you are interested in. If you don’t speak Spanish – well, now you have a great reason to learn it!