While the word tamale is most certainly Spanish, its derivation is from the Nahuatl word tamalli. Tamallis were developed as a portable ration carried by war parties in pre-Columbian North America and were as common and varied as the sandwich is today. One commonality among tamalli then and tamales today, is the corn meal dough (masa) which is made through a process called “nixtamalization.” In pre-Colombian times, the process involved using wood ashes to soften field corn for easier grinding. Today this is done by slaking lime. Interestingly, nixtamalization not only softens field corn, it aids in digestibility and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body.
Though the fundamental component of the tamale remains masa, fillings for this delicious snack or entree are almost as diverse as the imagination, ranging from sweet to savory and everything in between. There are also tremendous variations in the wrapper which envelops the filling. Dried corn husks are probably the most common, but the descendants of the Meso Americans also use fresh corn husks, banana leaves and the membrane from some agave plants.
Most New Mexicans have been subjected to the tired joke hinting that tamales are a Christmas tradition for Hispanics because they give us something to unwrap. Rather than retort to ignorance with rancor, Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask A Mexican, a widely syndicated alternative newspaper column, confronts the “bogeymen of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance” with humor. About unwrapping tamales on Christmas he writes “the humble masa is a Mexican’s most valuable weapon come Navidad–it is our fruitcake, a fail-safe, universal present that also functions as an edible visa.”
In New Mexico, we like to think of tamales as being part of our culinary heritage and we boast of some of the very best tamales in the western hemisphere. Surprisingly, however, some of the very best tamales I’ve ever had were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta area. Until Alton Brown revealed the existence of tamale on the Mississippi Delta during his Feasting on Asphalt series on the Food Network, many people had no idea tamales were so prevalent in the land of fried food and pecans a plenty. Plentiful though they may be, they don’t hold a candle to New Mexico’s tamales.
It’s not the heritage of tamales that came to mind the first time we strode into Hot Tamales. Lexicologist that I am, what came to mind during my first visit was the fact that “hot tamale” is American slang for a sexually arousing woman (and there I was with three gruesome guys. I also reflected with disdain on one of the very least amusing Spanglish word plays possible–”chile today, hot tamale” which I’ve heard used by at least two of the least funny weathermen in America. Thankfully, Hot Tamales, one of Rio Rancho’s rare New Mexican restaurants, has nothing to do with malapropisms and everything to do with good New Mexico cuisine.
Hot Tamales is owned by the good folks who own O’Hare’s Grille and Pub which features one the state’s most innovative bar menus. It’s obvious the ownership has a passion for great cuisine and serves New Mexican cuisine with the same flair as the Irish and American fare at their other restaurant venture.
Hot Tamales’ walls are festooned with surreal, almost shockingly bright colors that might remind you of a John Nieto painting. Colorful Mexican blankets are suspended from the ceiling on latilla poles. The ambiance changes entirely in the evening thanks to the restaurant’s lighting effects. Blue light (said to have a special ability to reset the biological clock) illuminates the center of the main dining room, imparting a semi-strobe effect when the whirring fan blades disperse blue hues. Booths on the west- and south-facing walls are illuminated by red light (which some doctors purport helps heal wounds more quickly). The nichos on the east-facing wall are illuminated by orange lights which no doubt have curative properties as well.
According to the table tents, the restaurant blends its red chile from pods and fire roasts the green chile. That’s a winning combination! The menu lists only 18 items and several a la carte options, but if our visits are any indication, they don’t need to add more to the menu. The philosophy, perhaps, is that it’s better to do a good job on a limited number of entrees than to have pages of menu items not prepared well.
Shortly after you’re seated, a bowl of rich, red salsa garnished with cilantro is brought to your table along with a basket of oversized and lightly-salted chips with a pronounced corn taste (they’re quite good). The salsa is thick, made from mashed red tomatoes (probably from a can) and has just a slight piquant bite to it. With a bit more garlic, it would rate higher in my estimation. Another prandial precursor Hot Tamales does very well is con queso. This isn’t just melted Velveeta or gloppy, gummy cheese as is served on nachos at sporting events. The con queso is thick, rich and creamy and utterly delicious. It’s not thick enough to break the chips and it’s not so runny that it drips off them. As with the salsa, the con queso could stand for a bit more piquancy.
My favorite entree is aptly named of “tres colores” as in the three colors that decorate three types of enchiladas–a green chile adorned chicken enchilada, a cheese enchilada enrobed in con queso and a red chile beef enchilada. Neither the red or green chile are particularly piquant, a short-coming to what is an otherwise tasty dish. One plus for many diners is that the chicken in the green chile chicken enchilada is made from all white meat (which despite being America’s favorite, isn’t necessarily the most juicy or delicious meat on a chicken). Thankfully, the chicken used at Hot Tamales is very moist. The cheese enchilada with con queso, essentially cheese punctuating cheese, is surprisingly good.
If you do find yourself enamored of white chicken engorged entrees, Hot Tamales also offers a green chile chicken enchilada casserole which is similar to the rolled enchilada on the Tres Colores enchilada combination plate, save for the fact that it’s served in a casserole dish. This is an entree we make at home on occasion so a comparison is inevitable. The main differences are that the chicken on the casserole dish we make at home is much more moist and the dish isn’t nearly as “cheesy.” The image above shows just how much melted cheese is draped over the entree. Hot Tamales is very generous with the white meat pieces which are cut into bite-sized pieces, but it’s also too generous, if that’s possible, with the cheese.
A restaurant named Hot Tamales had better serve very good tamales. This one does, and not just tamales the way most restaurants in New Mexico serve them. One example pairs a pork tamale with a large bowl of posole. In fact, the tamale actually sits on the bowl atop the posole. Interestingly, the masa does not completely disintegrate to leave swimming shards of shredded beef and masa floating on the bowl. Instead you can actually cut the tamale with your fork and fully appreciate the tender tendrils of red chile blessed pork and the corn-impregnated masa with just a hint of the juice from the posole. The tamales coupling with posole is genius–two favorite New Mexican dishes in one bowl. The posole is hearty, earthy and delicious with a green chile of medium piquancy lending its terrific flavor profile.
All plates are served with large, puffy sopaipillas as well as Spanish rice and beans, both of which are quite good. If you don’t like beans (or they don’t like you), a nice (albeit salty) alternative are papitas, cubed fried potatoes. They’re like cubed French fries sans ketchup. The sopaipillas are quite good, but would be better with real honey instead of that caramel colored high-fructose corn syrup disguised to look and taste like honey.
Another dessert offering is Hot Tamales version of natillas, the cinnamon blessed custard. The natillas are sweet without being cloying and are served in a small cup with two triangle shaped churros and whipping cream which is sweeter than the natillas. As good as the natillas might be, they’re also amazingly thin, almost like an egg nog. In fact, you don’t even need a spoon to finish these natillas; you can drink them down easily if you prefer.
The wait staff at Hot Tamales has always been professional and pleasant, always quick with drink refills and savvy enough to recommend more than the standard offerings. There are many things to like about this popular Rio Rancho restaurant, but my assessment is that it is close to being more than just another “good” restaurant. With just a few small touches–particularly piquant chile–greatness might be around the corner.
1520 Rio Rancho Blvd.
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 April 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Stacked Enchiladas, Hot Tamale Bowl, Tacos, Tres Colores