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Apr 29, 2008 07:09 PM

Interesting Street Tamales in Upper Manhattan

After weeks of lurking on the various New York boards and never ceasing to be impressed at the knowledge of you Chowhounds, I think you (and probably nobody else) might appreciate some suggestions for the most interesting street tamales in Manhattan – “interesting” does not necessarily mean tasty, but frankly to me interesting or surprising beats good anytime.

For a research project, I have spent the past few weeks in the delightful company of Manhattan’s tamale ladies – and of course I took every opportunity to savor their treats. While all the tamales I came to taste were enjoyable, some stood out. But first, here’s a very short, but essential introduction for every new tamale eater:

An important thing you need to know is that “the filling is really only a flavoring – the main event is the corn itself, its flavor and texture.” So far Nicholas Gilman in his guide on Mexico City’s food. A tamal with a small amount of filling is not a bad tamal; if the filling is subtle or rich, and the corn has the right consistency and taste, it should beat a tamal soaked in sauce or meat anytime. Secondly, tamales are steamed for many hours, which makes them a reliably hygienic dish – whether in New York or in Mexico’s dusty streets. So, don’t be afraid, just give them a try – nothing bad will happen to you!

Now, here’s the list with the most interesting tamales you will find in Manhattan. None of them cost more than $1.25. And in addition to those mentioned, all the vendors of course also sell the “usual suspects” (mole rojo, verde, pollo, puerco, rajas con queso, etc.). As far as I can tell, none of the vendors has received any coverage on this board until now:

1) 137th Street & Broadway (east side of Broadway, next to park) – schedule for both vendors: 5 to 6 days per week, 2-10pm: Coming out of the subway, you will find two vendor carts: on the one hand a couple (man and woman) who are selling a large variety of tamales. The best: mole poblano (home-made, subtle, as always with chicken), tamales oaxaqueños picantes (these are with extremely spicy mole rojo with pork, wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk), and tamales dulces (sweet tamales, with pieces of raisins and pine apple – a bit like marzipan, but less heavy and sweet). Standing nearby, there is a lone woman vendor, very shy: her tamales are probably the most authentic, coming closest to what you will find in Oaxaca. Outstanding: mole poblano (which are – as in Oaxaca – wrapped in a banana leaf; rather mild, not rich, but interestingly, they are flavored with hierba santa – an anis type herb, very characteristic, a bit spicy).

2) East 116th Street & Third Avenue (southwestern corner) – hours: every morning, 7-10am. Extremely sympathetic, small woman. Sells by far the best mole rojo – extremely complex flavor, on some days seems closer to mole poblano than to rojo, with pork meat, rather spicy. Also excellent tamales dulces, neither fat nor too sweet.

3) East 110th Street & Lexington (northwestern corner, in front of green a grocer, called La Malinche) – hours: most mornings, 8-10.30am: Elderly woman, very warm personality. Sells by far the largest and juiciest tamales of all venders. Most interesting: guajillo (type of red pepper, very spicy and strong, very unusual, in a banana leaf); hierba santa (with cheese, if I remember correctly – terrific, unusual); wonderfully intense mole poblano. Special mention must go to her beverages: most tamale ladies offer only arroz con leche (hot liquid milk rice) or champurrado (a Mexican type of hot chocolate, thickened with corn flour). Additionally, this vendor often has wonderful avena (hot liquid oatmal in milk) and granillo (hot wheat in thick pine apple juice – no milk) – both are hard to find in New York.

4) East 110th Street & Third Avenue (northwestern corner) – hours: most mornings, 7-10am: the only tamale lady in Manhattan who vends tamales de elote (sweet corn tamales) – not everyday, but usually Wednesdays. Sells the best tamales con rajas (cheese with green pepper stripes), also fine mole poblano. This woman also takes orders for any other type of Mexican food, everything home-made (including tortillas!).

You may worry that publishing these women’s vending locations and times in a public forum might get them into legal trouble. Almost all these women have a personal food vending license, but none of them has a food cart permit. Believe me: The police are well aware of that, they know their hours and locations and drown them in fines. This is not going to change, yet the women thankfully continue to sell.

One last thing: Almost all these vendors are extremely passionate about food and Mexican cuisine. If you can, talk to them about their tamales, the million spices they use, any other dishes you are interested in. If you don’t speak Spanish – well, now you have a great reason to learn it!

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  1. what a great, well informed post, streefoodenthusiast!! i really appreciate it! a really good tamale is one of the things i miss most about california. now that the weather is warmer, it sounds like i will have to walk to the 110th st. and 116 st. vendors for my breakfast. are all of these vendors there on weekends, too?

    also, any leads you have on uws st. vendors, near the 80s-100's would be fantastic....

    2 Replies
    1. re: cimui

      There are two tamale ladies on the UWS: One on 94 St. & Broadway (northwest corner), another one on 96 St. & Broadway (southeast corner). Their hours are usually 7-9.30am. Both serve the usual types (salsa verde, roja, and rajas with cheese) - not too exciting but good.

      1. re: streetfoodenthusiast

        Thank you, sfe. I'd heard the 96th st. vendor was no longer going to this location. Very glad to hear she's back.

    2. Thanks for a very informative post. I don't ever get to upper Manhattan in the early morning, so I probably won't have chances to try these, but I'm wondering if these tamale vendors are making their own corn masa. Most of the tamale vendors I find in Queens don't use much more than the reconstituted masa harina to make their tamales, so the corn itself is never really the main event. The tamales de elote sound really promising.

      4 Replies
      1. re: E Eto

        Interesting that you mention the process of making corn masa - I remember that the vendor couple on 137th St. definitely told me about grinding their own corn! As to all the other vendors, I have no information - but suspect that at least two more do it as well: the woman on 110 & Lexington, as she is a member of a three-women cooking team; and the lady on 110 & Third, who is really proud and enthusiastic about cooking. By the way, the two vendors on 137th often work until 10pm or later - so there's no need to get up early!

        1. re: streetfoodenthusiast

          Just caught your magnificent post. Thank you so much, streetfoodenthusiast! Sigh -- I'm rarely on the UWS anymore, but must make a special trip for the 137th Street one. I haven't found any place in NYC that makes their own masa -- usually it's maseca.

          1. re: Miss Needle

            Thank you, cimui, for your feedback. I hope you will contradict my assessment of the 96th and 94th Street tamales being unexciting after giving them a try.
            E Eto: I will try to find out whether any of the other four vendors grinds her own corn when I get a chance. If you ever catch the East 110th Street-tamales de elote on a Wednesday, I would be interested to hear your opinion – not yet having tasted them myself thus far.
            Miss Needle: thank you for your kind words. If you go to check out the 137th Street vending couple, you may attempt to do a side-by-side comparison with the solitary woman vendor next to them – their tamales are extremely distinct. Let us know which of their masa wins the blind-test.

            1. re: streetfoodenthusiast

              No, I think your assessment is right on (for 96th st.). Guess what I had for breakfast? :) They're very similar to the ones you can get at the taco truck on 96th and B'way, in the evenings. But still, in this tamale-scarce town, a tamale is a tamale and I really enjoyed mine!

      2. I went to the 137th St station stop yesterday. There was only one cart selling tamales. I got tamales oaxaqueños picantes, pollos, and dulces The first was $2 each, the others were $1 each. The dulces wasn't pineapple and raisin, but was, I think, made with strawberry juice. Sound familiar to anyone? It was the color of frankenberry cereal and kind of tasted like it and was pretty darn good. I'd say that about all the tamales: none knocked me out, but they were all really good, and I'm definitely going to be going back, especially at those prices. I'm also hoping to try the tamales at the second cart. It's great to see some decent Mexican food slipping into this borough.

        And thanks so much to the OP--what a great post.

        2 Replies
        1. re: jasmurph

          A quick update: I returned to the two vendors on 137th Street and in fact both grind their corn masa themselves, even the solitary shy tamale lady, whose tamales jasmurph tried the other day. As she told me, her family runs a corn mill in Oaxaca, so anything but home-made masa is unacceptable for her - even here in NYC. And yes, while strawberry tamales (with raisins) may sound strange, hers are wonderful: delicately flavored, with a mild sweetness. To sum up, I am positive that all four vendors in the original post grind their own masa.

          1. re: streetfoodenthusiast

            Good to know. There were no raisins in my strawberry tamale.

        2. I just caught this post. Wonderful! we need more of these real scouting reports. This is great stuff. I just wish I'd seen it an hour ago when I could have made it up there in time for some early morning tamales. Next time.

          Regardless, keep it up. This is extremely helpful and a valuable contribution to chowhound.

          And the fact that some of these vendors are grinding their own masa. THAT's impressive.

          1. I need to start getting an Unlimited Ride Metrocard again so that I can get off the train and exploremore readily! The 137th St vendors are on my way home! I love a good tamale and I haven't had one in ages.