City Tamale, Where it’s Christmas All Year Long
Mexican culture is pretty festive 365 days a year. Much like Mariachi on the city’s subways, tamales have also permeated pockets of New York City. Usually, on a relatively busy street, you can find a woman with a pushcart selling tamales to busy commuters.
During the holiday season, these perfectly wrapped delicacies are perfect for visiting friends and family. City Tamale in Hunts Point specializes in these steamy packages of meat or cheese stuffed masa (soft corn dough), typically wrapped in a corn husk. The best part is that they’re available all year.
“In Mexico, you wake up, you get dressed and you go to take the train or bus. Instead of donuts and coffee, you would get a tamale,” describes Israel Veliz, founder and co-owner of City Tamale. This is what he witnessed every day growing up in Mexico.
Veliz, a young Mexican-American entrepreneur, grew up in Mexico and the Bronx. With roots in the Mexican state of Puebla, his keen eye for opportunity and mother’s traditional home-cooking became an inspiration for the menu at City Tamale.
“I’m not a chef, but I have a good taste for food,” he insists. Veliz a business guy, studied accounting at Baruch College. “My idea was to find a product that was easy enough and simple enough that [we were] able reproduced.”
So with a little R&D from his Bronx apartment, he adapted his mother’s tamale recipe and started selling them from home. Eventually, he moved the operation into an old restaurant surrounded by the wholesale markets and industries of Hunt’s Point.
“Our clients are the same every week,” Veliz points out. “That is a faithful client base. We see the same faces every single day.”
But as the temperature drops and Christmas approaches, a warm tamale is in high demand. “It is hard work to spread the masa on the leaf, making it symmetrical. Nobody wants to do this,” explains Alvaro Magana, co-owner of City Tamale. “[People] just want to steam them. They feel like they cook them and they have the credit.”
In other words, cheating is allowed. Actually, it’s recommended. City Tamale’s vision is to develop a franchise, open up shops across New York, then expand across the country. Ultimately, Magana explains the "goal is to have our tamales frozen and sold in supermarkets.”
Tamales are the perfect crowd pleaser and are typically made in large batches. Home cooks and chefs alike line deep steamer pots with dozens of tamales standing upright, all cozied together. Not an inaccurate metaphor for a New York City subway ride. It’s also ideal for large family gatherings when a crowd of aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors congregate in Abuela's kitchen.
Magana points out that tamales are a pre-Hispanic food. Which means that before the Spanish brought Christmas to the Americas, the Aztecs were preparing them with native crops like corn, pumpkin seeds and other indigenous plants. The recipe is, for the most part, intact after centuries of colonization and immigration. Except for the Cheesy Jalapeño tamale, one of City Tamale’s best sellers.
The Cheesy Jalapeño is a cheese tamale served with corn, pickled onion and of course, jalapeño. However, City Tamale also serves up a variety of very traditional meat stuffed tamales like Salsa Verde con Pollo (chicken in green tomatillo sauce) and Salsa Roja con Pernil (pork shoulder doused in peppery red sauce). All of these varieties could be found on a typical Mexican Christmas table.
Each region of Mexico has a particular way of preparing the tamales. But one quality is universal, “Somehow when your mom and grandma make things, it’s different,” explains Magana. “We’re good [at] cooking. But when you ask [my friends], their moms and grandmas do it a little bit better.”
But if mom isn’t around to make some steamy tamales, City Tamale has got you covered all year long.
City Tamale, 1316 Oak Pond Avenue in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Open Monday through Saturday.