Tamale Take Down

“They’re pretty good… But I’ve had better,” the woman sitting at a neighboring booth leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.

Seated in one of the most highly regarded vegan restaurants in the bay area, luxuriating in some of the most masterfully composed dishes around, this stunning utterance was enough to induce whiplash. Snapping back into reality out of a food-induced daze, it took a moment to re-focus and discover the source of such heretical words. A small woman with a kind face looked back at me, eyes gleaming with clarity- Or perhaps it was a hint of mischief.

The dish in question was a tamale, lavished with smoked black beans, spiced pepitas, and a luscious avocado crema. Impeccably plated with all the flourishes one would expect of a fine dining establishment, it was a sight to behold, and certainly no slouch in the flavor department. In fact, up until that moment, this could have very well been the pinnacle of tamale artistry in my opinion. Now that impression was suddenly questionable, an uninformed statement based upon only half of the story. I had to get myself these purported transcendent tamales.

I had to go to Flacos.

An east bay institution serving up an entirely vegan menu, the bill of fare is short and sweet. You won’t find any overstuffed “Mission-style” burritos or loaded nachos here, but real deal Mexican meals. Tacos slide out of the kitchen on handmade corn tortillas, thick and crisply toasted. Masa is made from scratch every day, and that dedication to the craft pays off in huge gustatory dividends. The scent of cooking cornmeal wafts out onto the street early in the day, tempting passersby even as breakfast time has barely ended.

Huarache is a regional delight that doesn’t make a big splash in most American states, which is a real shame given its fool-proof flavor combinations. Soft slabs of fried masa lurk beneath a veritable forest of romaine and cilantro, huge servings of refried pinto beans, and slathered with rich, creamy avocado salsa. It’s worth noting that the avocado salsa is available in both mild and spicy formats, but unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I would advise keeping it cool. The heat on the spicy rendition is no joke; I’ve seen grown men weep over their taquitos upon discovering this fatal flaw.

On cool, foggy days, nothing satisfies like a bowlful of pozole, a very simple soup of tomatoes and hominy. While it’s not quite on par with the other, flashier staples, it’s sure to hit the spot if you’re craving a bit of comfort.

But enough beating around the bush. The main attraction, the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the banana leaf-wrapped tamale is hands-down the single item you must order if you can only pick one. Though the mole, caper, potato, and green olive filling sounds like a discordant combination, suspend disbelief and give it a try. The reasons why it works so well remain a mystery, but you’ll never question it ever again. A true rarity in the crowded and heavily promoted bay area food scene, this particular promise lives up to the hype.

Tamales can be ordered a la cart or as a plate, complete with rice, beans, and salad. While you may feel more virtuous by selecting a fully balanced meal, the sides are nothing special. Get the most mouthwatering bang for your buck by doubling down on the tamales instead. It’s an easy choice that you’ll never regret, even for those with a penchant for fine dining. Flacos might very well hold the key to the best tamales you’ve ever had.

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10 thoughts on “Tamale Take Down

  1. OH what I would do for a good Mexican restaurant somewhere in the state of Tasmania. I adore Mexican food and had never tasted “real” Mexican food till I met Steve and we were stumbling around those first dates and fell over a small Mexican restaurant in South Perth (Western Australia). The food was amazing and like nothing I had ever eaten before (or since as it would turn out) and upon attempting to revisit this establishment a few years later when we revisited those old haunts, it had been swallowed up by development. OH what a travesty. I sometimes trawl the Southern U.S. food blogs that I follow and quite literally drool on my keyboard. They seem completely unaware of how extremely lucky they are to be in the proximity of South America and to be doused with that esteemed cuisine. I know that there is some seriously BAD Mexican food out there but you know what? Even at it’s worst, Mexican food still comes up trumps over most takeaways we have here in Tasmania. I will stop complaining now and will add “Learn to make masa” to my long list of “from scratch” techniques…sigh…

    1. Oh now you must come visit! We have more Mexican joints than you could ever eat at in your lifetime, even if you tried a new place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a real luxury to have easy access to so many world cuisines here; this is just the start. I would love nothing more than to plan a whole eating itinerary for you in the bay area. :)

      1. One day, when my son and his Texan (soon to be Aussie) partner decide to decamp back to the U.S. to visit, I may just take you up on that ;)

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