A good, to say nothing of consistent, tamal is hard to come by in New York. And you probably are not expecting to find such a tamal in Mott Haven, where roast chicken rules. But then you smell the wafts of steamed masa near the corner of Willis Avenue on 138th, and spot a vendor with several steamers beside a rolling kitchen cart. Follow the scent and you will land squarely in Guerrero, the Mexican state where the stand's cook, Carmen, and her children hail from. They call their business Tamales Ebenezer.
Every day for the last eight years, Carmen has woken up at 4 a.m. to begin molding her masa. "We don't take no days off," her son Neo, who helps run the stand, told me. "Holidays, rain, snow. Every day." It is a good thing for us, but for those from afar the commitment must be reciprocated. Neo sets up shop at 6 in the morning, and business is brisk.
A Southern Californian who speaks of tamales in reverent tones, Serious Eats barbecue bureau chief James Boo is not above the occasional morning jaunt to Ebenezer from his distant digs in Prospect Heights. James—who introduced me to the stand—takes these trips seriously and, on our first visit, bought all of the remaining tamales oaxaqeuños ($2.50 each; regular-sized tamales for $1.50 in corn husks are available as well). A trip to Ebenezer requires that James wake up at 5:00 to make it to work on time. And he does so happily.
Before diving fork-first into Carmen's tamal roja, I had not experienced the primal appeal of tamales here in New York. Like countless others, I had been the unfortunate foil of far too many dried and withered twigs of masa on our streets. While I had found a tamal here and there that proved satisfying, none before had provoked such cravings.
Here on 138th, however, I relished the masa and it seemed to relish me, too. It was a lard-induced high. Offered in four flavors (verde, roja, rajas, and mole), Carmen's oaxaqeuños are the size of tightly wrapped burritos. On weekdays, she cooks 30 to 40 of each; during the weekends that number rises as high as 70. Hot and bright, the verde zaps you like the morning sun after a night of long drinking; the roja has the deeper flavor of smoked chilies. There was an excellent prickly rajas—chicken with tomatoes, strips of poblano, onion, herbs, and chilies—that was what I imagine Marcella Hazan's tamales might taste like after a few lessons with Diana Kennedy. Available only on the weekends, the rich and velvety mole poblano is the proper companion for the champurrado ($4 for a large, $2 for a small). Plastic plates and spoons are provided for curbside eating.
Ever in pursuit of a greater tamal, James produced a tamal verde and asked me to bring it to Lina of El Atoradero. When I made it to the store, she returned my gesture with a fork and a wary eye. Expressing her belief that most people here don't know how to cook tamales, she took a bite and then another.
"The sauce is good. But the masa is not soft enough. You see?" she asked, stabbing the tamal."They didn't cook it for long enough." I asked her how long she cooks her tamales, and she said an hour; at Ebeneezer, the quoted time was 40 minutes. I agreed that the masa was blocky, but found the texture pleasing.
Lina's standards are very high, and her predilection for soft masa is evident in the crumble-prone Guatemalan tamal ($3) sold at her store. Like many Mexican immigrants in New York, Lina is originally from Puebla, and I take this to be a reasonable explanation for her dissatisfaction with the masa. Guerrero borders Puebla, but in Mexico there are tamales made of roughly crushed corn, leavened with wood ash, and cooked in adobe ovens.
Must every tamal be the same? Insistent on the differences in the tastes of the Guerrerenses and Poblanos, Neo explained that when his mother started her tamal stand she offered atoles de frutas. Popular in Guerrero, they did not sell here. "The Poblanos didn't get it," he offered, with partisan edge. "All they know is the champurrado and the plain atole."
What has been a success, however, are their Sunday morning goat specials. It is here where Carmen's cooking shines brightest. A stand-in for barbacoa, there is chivo ($10/lb.): at least one goat dressed in a red chili paste and cooked between layers of avocado and banana leaves. The meat is super tender, its natural gameyness spiked by the sauce and the floral flavors imparted by the leaves.
But the real star is the consomme ($6): clean and full bodied, its savory flavor seems to run deeper than the pot it was cooked in. A squeeze of lime adds a tart spark, the onion and cilantro a welcome crunch. Both are necessary. This is a soup infused with the love and dedication of cooking for years on end, without the thought of a break. Someday this must end; for now, it should be cherished.
Carmen, however, does not limit herself to street side hawking alone; she caters for local families and groups in the neighborhood, offering food that goes beyond Ebeneezer's straightforward menu. While you won't get her to leaven your masa with wood ash, tamal fillings can be modified—something I found out when Neo mentioned a local's plead for roasted eggplant tamales. There are other regular items to be ordered, as well, including a dish of chicken and tamal de frijol in mole poblano sauce or, if you've got a sweet tooth, tamales de dulce. (Just do not forget to order ahead of time.) The neighborhood is changing, as Neo claims the number of Guerrerenses in New York is on the rise. One can only hope this will spell the return of the atoles de frutas. An atole de tamarindo, a favorite of his, would not be half bad right now.
Across from 353 East 138th Street, Bronx, NY 10454 (map)
Personal number for orders upon request
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. He firmly believes in the power of pork. Keep abreast of his latest finds and nonsequiturs here, or contact him directly at chris.e.crowley [at] gmail.com. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.