There is a Mexican restaurant in Oakland located across the street from the county jail that sells some of the best tamales I've ever eaten. Good Mexican food is hard to find in New York City, and authentic handmade tamales seem near impossible.
My friend Suzie is in town, visiting from California, and she and my friend Sara hosted a dinner party last night for which they made heaps and heaps of tamales. Suzie and Sara are both fantastic cooks; and Suzie has frequently turned out amazing Mexican fare for me -- she's a Rick Bayless fan, and makes a mean salpicon. Last night, however, it was the tamales' time to shine.
We started the evening with crab ceviche served both on tortilla chips and cucumber slices, with platters of sliced avocado and mango alongside -- both drizzled with lime juice, and the mango was given the added bite of some chili powder liberally sprinkled over it. I drank rose for most of the evening, and the dryness and freshness of the wine was a great partner for the tangy Mexican food.
We had salads of Bibb lettuce, queso fresco, bacon, avocado, mango and toasted sesame seeds with (I think) a cilantro lime dressing -- sort of Sara and Suzie's version of a Mexican Cobb Salad. Dinner was piles and piles of delicious steamed tamales: mushroom tamales steamed in corn husks and chili pork tamales steamed in banana leafs. I had three or four; honestly I lost track, especially when the plate of fresh, hot churros appeared in front of me.
Mexican food -- good, real, fresh Mexican food, not the cheese-and-bean stuff you often find passed off as Mexican -- is one of my favorite cuisines and one of the things I miss most about California. Mexican food does not mean just burritos and nachos, and while I'm scared to ask how much lard Sara and Suzie went through in their tamale prep, the freshness and brightness of the flavors in Mexican cooking truly can't be beat. Especially when someone one else does all the work for you, and all that's left is to show up with a bottle of wine and a large appetite!