When we phoned our friend Carlos to ask where the best tamales in Santa Fe were to be found, he waxed enthusiastic about a tamale factory and restaurant on Rodeo Road just west of Saint Francis. He told us the restaurant was once owned by a professional wrestler and is Santa Fe’s equivalent of Albuquerque’s legendary El Modelo. After we hung up with Carlos, neither my Kim nor I could remember the restaurant’s name or exact address. We’d both assumed the other one would remember. I seemed to recall the restaurant’s name being “El Mero Mero,” a name which made a lot of sense to me because it can translate from Spanish to “the main one,” “the top dog,” “the head honcho” or other terms of that ilk. Needless to say, we couldn’t find El Mero Mero.
Because El Mero Mero didn’t work out, my second brilliant hypothesis was “El Maromero,” or “the somersaulter.” That name didn’t even make sense to me (much less to my brilliant better half), but considering the uniquely wacky names (not to mention costumes) used by Mexican luchadores, maybe El Maromero wasn’t that outlandish. After not being able to El Maromero, we turned into a parking lot to call Carlos again. There in front of us was Posa’s El Merendero, the tamale factory and restaurant of which he had spoken so highly.
Merendero is a Spanish word for an open-air cafe or bar, typically in the country or on the beach. While a restaurant by that name being in Santa Fe made just a little more sense to us as “El Maromero” did, it must have made sense to the Posa family who launched their tamale-making operation on Galisteo Street in 1955. Today El Merendero has two locations in Santa Fe, the tamale factory and restaurant on Rodeo Road (the one whose name and address we couldn’t remember) and a newer one on Zafarano Drive.
El Merendero has been owned and operated from the beginning by the Posa family. Among the Posa proprietors were Antonio and Carmen Posa, the former being the professional wrestler of which Carlos spoke. Antonio Posa wrestled for several decades, once holding the world middleweight title. Today the operation is owned by Jeff Posa, a third-generation owner who values continuity and quality so much that he still uses his grandmother’s original recipes. Why mess with perfection…or at least a very good thing?
Who says those recipes touch perfection? Not only generations of Santa Feans esteem Posa’s El Merendero that highly, but so do Americans from coast-to-coast to whom tantalizing tamales are shipped…and if you’re wondering where some of the Land of Enchantment’s most popular New Mexican restaurants obtain their tamales, wonder no further. El Merendero has been provisioning restaurants with tamales for years. Not surprisingly, the tamale factory’s busiest tamale-making time of year is around the Christmas holidays when as many as 14,000 handmade tamales per day are made each day, using only Hatch chile.
For many restaurants and cooks at home, tamales begin and end with pork, leaving many of us to wonder what tamales would be like if constructed with something else. El Merendero has actualized that foodie fantasy, offering not only a green chile-chicken tamale, but a vegetarian option (a combination of mozzarella and asadero cheeses and green chile) and even a hard-core vegan version (squash, black beans, corn and green chile). No longer are tamales solely for carnivores. No longer do we have to wonder what tamales taste like when green chile isn’t added after-the-fact.
Lest you remain in suspense, you should know that the tamales–both the red chile pork and the green chile chicken–are terrific. We took home a half-dozen of each and wiped them out over the course of two meals. They’re not quite as sizable as the tamales at El Modelo nor are they as piquant, but they’ve got all the qualities great tamales share. The ratio of masa to pork or chicken allows for the flavor profile of each to be easily discerned. The masa has the pronounced flavor of corn with sweet and savor notes. Both the pork and the chicken are tender and impregnated with chile, not so much that it overwhelms the delicate flavors of the meat, but just enough to complement both. Ever the traditionalists, we enjoyed the red chile pork tamales most, but would partake of the green chile chicken tamales any time we can get them.
El Merendero is no one-trick-pony, offering a full menu of New Mexican food favorites you can enjoy in the dining room or as take-out, the latter being an extremely popular choice. You’ll place your order at a counter above which is posted an oversized six-panel menu that includes appetizers, hand-held burritos, Mexican plates, “local favorites,” tamales (of course) and Mexican grill items. A number of sides are also available for your in-house or to-go enjoyment. If there’s one item you should try during your inaugural visit, it’s the tamales and as you’ve read, there are several ways to enjoy them.
One unique way to enjoy El Merendero’s tamales is in the form of Posas tamale pie (two tamales, red chile beef with beans, cheese, lettuce, diced tomato and onion). It’s a deep bowl of comfort food goodness New Mexican style. As much as possible, you’ll want each bite to include a little bit of every ingredient on the dish. The one stand-out on this savory pie is, of course, the two tamales which enhance the flavor of everything else on the plate. Alas, because the tamales are rather small, you’ll run out of tamale before you run out of beans, cheese, etc.
For my Kim, it wouldn’t be a visit to a New Mexican restaurant without carne adovada (marinated red chile pork served with your choice of beans, rice or calabasitas as well as garnish and either a tortilla or a sopaipilla). A generous amount of carne rewards you with tender tendrils and cubes of porcine perfection ameliorated with a pleasantly piquant red chile. The calabasitas (green and yellow squash and zucchini with corn) have a fresh, in-season texture and deliciousness.
Instead of the usual salsa and chips, consider Frito Pie (Fritos corn chips, red chile beef with beans, cheese, lettuce, diced tomato and onions) a viable and absolutely delicious appetizer option. Good as it is, two things would make it even better–less lettuce and tomatoes to cool what is already a barely warm enough dish. In fact, dishes served warm and not hot was a commonality of all three dishes we ate. The other commonality was lack of piquancy. When my Kim complains of a New Mexican dish being “gringo hot,” you can bet the chile is somewhat on the wimpy side.
For one-hundred percent handmade tamales and so much more, Posa’s El Merendero is an excellent choice.
Posa’s El Merendero
1514 Rodeo Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Posa’s Tamale Pie, Carne Adovada, Frito Pie, Watermelon Agua Fresca