The handwritten letters "TORTA DE TAMAL" were in stark sharpie black against a blast of neon pink. The sign hung in the window of Alimentos Saludables, a restaurant formerly called Tamales Tonchita, a tamale outpost on 4th Avenue in Sunset Park. Torta de tamal is just what it sounds like: a toasted roll sandwiching a warm tamale, a starch on starch offering that serves as a quick street snack for workers in transit. It's a ubiquitous meal in urban Mexican cities, though I've never encountered it before in New York. "It's our bagel and cream cheese," our waitress laughed.
The nondescript spot is a small and scummy diner, with just four small tables and a long bar fit with stools, serving a proper Mexican breakfast. Customers come in one after another for styrofoam cups of thin black coffee laced with cinnamon and platters of tacos placeros on handmade tortillas. Arroz con leche ($1.75), is not a cold stodgy pudding, but a loose, slinking drink, served hot and creamy with grains of rice suspended within. Champurrado ($1.75), a thick Mexican hot chocolate of sorts, is sweetened with chocolate and heated to scalding, the perfect cup in which to dip a pan dulce, which sit covered on the counter.
And then there are the tamales. There are at least five varieties every day ($1.75 to $2.25), maybe rajas con queso (hot planks of jalapeno buffered by mild panela cheese), or chicken in a salsa verde, or sweet tamales dyed pink and studded with raisins. The tamales are not always as hot as they could be and do not wear their age well, but they command a devout neighborhood following.
Ask for the ones that have been made that day and maybe you'll get a mole poblano tamale too hot to touch, which releases plumes of steam when the husk is cracked open. The masa will be barely set, like a corn custard pulled straight from the oven, the house-made mole staining the corn like tie-dye, the perfect expression of what a tamale should be.
5919 4th Ave. Brooklyn, NY 11220 (map)