This past weekend, Vess and I had the great opportunity to go check out the 2011 Tamale Festival in downtown Phoenix. It’s an annual 2 day affair where people get together and enjoy games, handmade crafts, live music and Mexican food before the year’s best tamale is crowned on Sunday afternoon.
I had been planning this excursion for a few weeks so of course, a couple of days before the festival, I came down with a particularly nasty Arizonan cold. I was happy to wake up on festival day with a partial sense of smell and taste. Undeterred, I headed out with a stomach full of Theraflu waiting for tamales to be piled on top. Surely some spicy food would open up my blocked sinuses. We arrived at 10:00 AM and were immediately greeted with the spicy smells of south of the border. People were already lined up at the beer tent and tequila booth. The sound of mariachi horns blared through the air. A huge, shit-eating grin started to show on my face. I immediately felt better.
I had purposely not eaten a thing that morning knowing how heavy Mexican food can sit in the belly. Vess and I had a plan to get many different things and split them between us. After doing a lap, we decided to start the eating.
The first mom-and-pop booth was rather small. We decided to begin with 2 tacos de asada and a red chile pork tamale. I was informed that they were out of cilantro but that it came with a sauce on the side. I said that was fine and in a few minutes our food was off of the griddle and in our hands. I was kind of surprised by the small size of the tacos (they were maybe 5 inch diameter shells, tops) but was too hungry to give it much thought. We found a spot and sampled our first taste of the festival.
Having picked this booth first kind of ruined me for the rest of the festival. The food was so simple compared to the rest that would follow, but it was hands-down my favorite.
The tamale was the firmer type, served dry-style. The masa was made with the broth that was used to cook the pork (a technique I love to use when making tamales at home) imparting extra flavor and an orange hue. The pork was plentiful but not very spicy. Luckily there were condiments available to correct that. This year’s competition was going to be fierce.
On to the tacos de asada.
I took my first bite. Juice ran down my arm.
“Is it good?” Vess inquired. I paused.
“It’s amazing. I have never tasted this flavor before.”
I took another bite. Vess elbowed her way to the plate to grab the other taco before I claimed it for my own.
“This is incredible. I could easily eat four more of these.”
These were the hit of the festival in my opinion. It was nothing more than chopped meat and sauce on a corn shell but it was absolutely incredible. The beef was seasoned and browned to perfection – and, was that… lime I was tasting? There was enough fat to give it a good hearty flavor and keep it juicy, but not enough to make a chewy mess. The meat would have been delicious on its own, but the sauce was what knocked it out of the ballpark. I don’t know exactly what the combination was but it was stellar. It reminded me of a really tasty red mole sauce, but there was something else going on. There were definitely some rich, roasted peppers in there with garlic – lots and lots of garlic. I thought I almost even tasted a hint of tamarind. Whatever it was, it was good… like fill-a-bowl-with-just-the-sauce-and-eat-it-straight good. Having made several trips to retrieve more napkins, we finished the tasty offerings and picked off the tiny scraps that were left on the plate until none remained. It was time to try another booth.
Our second booth had only tamales and menudo. This booth was the biggest and run by the sponsors of the festival, a local Mexican supermarket chain. After browsing a while, we decided on one jalapeño con queso tamale to share between us. I grabbed a bottle of salsa picante from the table and shook a few liberal dashes onto my plate for dipping on the side.
This tamale was served dry-style, as well, but was huge in comparison to the first. The texture was different, too. I had a hard time getting it to release from the corn husk. It wasn’t steamed as long giving it a texture reminiscent of custard. I broke off a piece with my fork and dug in.
The jalapeños were mild (as is often the case when cooked) but ultimately the only thing you could really taste besides the masa. As far as I could tell, the cheese was a queso blanco and while copious, the flavor was very mild. The salsa picante helped to amp things up a bit and I made quick work of the rest of the tamale along with Vess’ assistance. It wasn’t a bad tamale by any means, just not my cup of tea. We started scanning around for our next conquest.
Our third booth had a huge crowd around it and was decked out with examples of all of their dishes. Women covered from head-to-toe with sewn-on fake tamales and tacos were carrying huge signs on sticks advertizing their delicious offerings. We had to check it out. As I was trying to snap a picture of their display dishes I was informed that I couldn’t because the Health Department didn’t allow it. Luckily, I had already fired off a couple of shots.
For this booth we went with a carne asada fajita and a chile relleno. Immediately, flour tortillas went on the griddle. The lady had a few questions for me.
“You want lettuce?”
“You want cheese?”
I expected the chile relleno to be the deep-fried cheesy goodness plopped on a plate and covered in rich sauce like I had eaten a million times before. Watching her make it, I noticed she took a giant, fried poblano pepper and stuck it on a tortilla – stem, seeds and everything. This was going to be interesting!
After getting our huge bundles of joy we walked over to a section that had all manner of homemade sauces and condiments. There was a pico de gallo, salsa verde, a really red salsa picante and what looked to be a watery guacamole. I asked a man behind the table which was the hottest.
“I made them all hot!”
I decided to put the pico de gallo and salsa verde on the chile relleno and the really hot looking salsa picante on the carne asada fajita. Vess and I grabbed a fistful of napkins and found another vacant spot to enjoy the feast. They were definitely the most beautiful thing we had tried so far but I knew from the size that trying to finish them was going to be pushing my luck. Never backing down from a challenge, I tried the chile relleno.
This was the heat I was looking for! The tomatillos and chiles in the salsa verde were absolutely perfect. This definitely had the freshest flavors I had tasted in a while. The pico de gallo was loaded with fresh jalapeños and the tomatoes were amazingly still in-season. By the time I crunched through the crispy breading of the relleno and made my way to the hot, gooey cheese that was waiting inside, I was in heaven. My nose started to run from the heat as I passed the plate to Vess. She took a bite.
“I don’t know if I can handle this heat!” she said with a crinkled brow as she began to sweat.
True, if it would have been any hotter it would have been painful to eat, but something about the beautiful combination of flavors made it irresistible. I moved on to the carne asada fajita.
The neon-red salsa picante was definitely intimidating but my curiosity won out over common sense. I squeezed some key lime juice on top and bravely ventured in.
Again, nothing but fresh flavors and a beautifully cooked flour tortilla. It wasn’t a flavor that I had never had before like the beloved first booth, but I had never had freshness on this level. Having an orange tree that is growing right outside of our apartment door, I could only imagine that the limes, tomatoes and peppers were picked from just a few miles away. The cheese was obviously some blend that came straight out of a bag, but it didn’t take anything away from the fajita. The sauce was indeed hot but also had a smoky, almost sweet flavor similar to a barbecue sauce. Unfortunately, the beef was a little on the dry side (maybe too lean of a cut?) but the sauce helped to make up for it.
After taking a few bites, trading plates with Vess, taking a few bites, trading… Vess had to give up.
“It’s too hot! I can’t do anymore.”
There was still more than half remaining of each gargantuan fajita. My stomach was getting full but I was going to have to go it alone. After some sweating and several nose-dabs, I polished them off. I had neon-red salsa picante all over my pants. My lips were numb but my sinuses were definitely clear. My pants were getting tight. It was time for a break.
We decided to walk around and browse the local arts and crafts for sale. Indigestion had started to set in, but it was the kind that I didn’t mind because even it still tasted good. After combing over the wares of a few booths full of jewelry, clothing and the like, we sat down to listen to a band pump out high-energy versions of classic mariachi tunes.
Eating anything else at this point would have been a mistake, so what do we do?
We approached the fry bread cart and looked at what they had to offer. Vess decided on a fry bread taco loaded with refried beans and cheese because she is insane and obviously has a death wish. I didn’t even bother taking a picture at this point because I really didn’t want to look at food.
“Do you have a styrofoam takeout box?” I asked the man in the cart, knowing there was no way we were going to finish the upcoming onslaught of carbohydrates.
“What the hell do you think this is? You think we’re here to satisfy customers?” he joked, obviously getting a little stir crazy from being stuck in a rolling cart for two days.
After receiving our bean-laden fry bread I half-heartedly poked a few bites out and chewed with noticeable labor. Vess ate only a few bites more than I before she too called it quits.
I piled into our car and rode home with a belly at critical mass and a lap with a plate of half-eaten fry bread. We dragged ourselves into the apartment and settled onto the mattress for an afternoon siesta.
The tamale festival had been a success.