I’ve often wondered if I’ve ever had a truly exceptional tamale. If I have, I certainly don’t remember such an experience. And it’s not for lack of trying—I’ve eaten a good number of tamales in my lifetime, especially when being referred to a particular place where “you gotta try the tamales.” More often than not, I leave unimpressed.
Usually, I find tamales to be a rather bland combination of corn with scant filling. I’d assume that great tamales would capture that delicate balance of corn to filling, with an ample amount of internally situated pork or beef to really grabs the eater’s attention. I often find the masa overwhelms the whole thing—sometimes I stare at its insides confused by the glaringly obvious lack of filling and flavor. Masa can often be overly dry, as well. Chalky, flavorless, and bland—it’s for these reasons I more often find myself sticking with burritos, tortas, and my beloved tacos when seeking out Mexican food.
But I have to believe great tamales exist, I’ve only yet to find them.
People have professed their love for Doe’s tamales. Having never been to Doe’s, and with a little encouragement from a few friends, I determined to make another attempt at tamales.
Doe’s tamales are not your conventional south-of-the-border variety—and many would separate these “Delta tamales” from their more traditional counterparts. The long, thin, cigar-like structures come wrapped in wax paper stained with bright orange grease. A half dozen makes for a fairly sizable meal. They utilize a plain white cornmeal, another departure from the finer masa often used in other tamale recipes. These are filled with ground chuck, diced red pepper, and dried onion. Rather than simply steaming them, these are simmered in a spicy broth made from tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, red pepper, and water. They come alongside a bowl of their hot chili, something else you don’t often see at your garden variety taqueria.
I’ll admit, the end result was pleasing. Choosing to boil them in broth kept them moist and tender. They were plenty spicy as well; there was no lack of chili powder in this dish. Overall, I’d call them an improvement over many tamales I’ve eaten in the past, but I still didn't find them to be terribly exciting and soon became bored after a few bites. The bowl of chili was no slouch, though—hot, beefy, and an excellent addition on top of the tamales.
I still don’t consider myself an avid tamale guy, but Doe’s does a respectable version of this classic Mexican dish. These Delta tamales have become a staple in Little Rock and the surrounding southern communities. It’s a recipe that’s been working for them since 1941, so I doubt they’ll be changing things up any time soon.
But if there is a “perfect” tamale out there—an ethereal, life-changing tamale—please share with me where these can be found, I’m more than willing to track them down.