Fare Perspective: The Tamale and Matias Leal

Dallas Tortilla & Tamale Factory

‘When you bite on a tamale you’re basically bombarded by two things: the corn and then the meat. It has to have a blend and it has to have a balance. – Matias Leal (Photo by Rich Vana)

Yes,  the first part of their name may reflect the type of flatbread made from corn or flour that we often see wrapping our tacos and enchiladas, but around the beginning of December, The Dallas Tortilla & Tamale Factory focuses its production not on the tortilla, but on the tamale. A simple dish, as far as ingredients are concerned, the tamale is nonetheless the result of a long process when started from scratch, but when the result reflects years of experience and knowledge, this dish – dumpling, even? – can be a truly special experience.

To learn a little more about the Tamales and their cultural (and culinary) significance, we spoke with Matias Leal, one of four brothers/owners of the Dallas Tortilla & Tamale Factory at his branch in Red Oak, where they’re making thousands of these corn-husk-wrapped treats by hand every day.

Thanks for meeting with us, Matias. What is it about Christmas that puts tamales in high demand?

I guess it’s just a tradition. And basically, what started out that tradition was grandma would get all her dughters together, the mothers would bring their daughters, and the process of making them basically turned into a family affair, down through the generations.

Unfortunately, over time I suppose that some of the grandmas have passed away, some of the mothers have passed away, and it’s a harder tradition to maintain in today’s society: years ago Dad worked, Mom stayed home. Now it’s pretty common to have a two-income family. So it’s hard for momma to you know, to do everything that her mom, and then her mom did with the tamales. I suppose that’s why we’ve gotten popular!

How would you describe the tamales you serve here?

Well, we still make them by hand, and we still use my grandmother’s and mother’s recipe, though we do several different tamales now. The original tamale is pork. We used to make them out of hog heads, But the cost of the head has gotten so expensive that we started going into basically just the pork meat. We use a combination of two different meats: we use what’s considered an 80/20, 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. And we then we mix that up with a fifty-fifty, which gives us the consistency of the fat that we need to make the tamale.

Matias and his wife Priscilla at their shop in Red Oak. (Photo by Rich Vana)

Matias and his wife Priscilla at their shop in Red Oak. (Photo by Rich Vana)

So you take the 80/20 ratio…

… And mix it with the 50/50. So we still have more meat than fat. We started with pork, but back in the early 70’s because of a health craze, we started making a beef. And then we started making a chicken. Then we started making them with jalapenos. So now we do a pork, pork jalapeno, beef, beef jalapeno, chicken, and chicken jalapeno.

Around Christmastime – our biggest time of the year – we do some more exotic types. We do a bean and cheese, which is a pinto bean and cheese, bean and cheese with jalapeno, and a bean jalapeno. My brother (Reuben Leal, who runs the DT&T on Marsalis in Dallas) makes a black bean tamale. He also makes a spinach with feta cheese, and a Monterey jack with poblano peppers.

We also make a tamale sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. And in here, we add pecans to them, just to give them a mix. We also make a sweet potato tamale.

So while you get creative, there’s not a whole lot of crazy ingredients that go into these?

There’s no mystery in tamales. We just don’t skimp on anything. We use mostly pork lard, but for the people who don’t eat meat, we do the black bean, pinto bean, spinach feta cheese, and also the Monterey jack and poblano with vegetable oil. That’s more what we would call a vegetarian tamale.

A lot of people make tamales out of what’s called Maseca, which is a ground corn. We don’t. We actually cook our corn. We mill our corn, cook it, and grind it ourselves. At the Marsalis store, we have a grinder that we’ve had for years. On the corn side of the masa, there’s actually two different grinds: you have what’s considered a tortilla grind and then you have what’s considered a tamale grind. Your tortilla grind is a finer grade, where your tamale grind is a coarser grade.

Then for our pork tamale, we use red chile powder, a little bit of salt, and a little bit of garlic in the meat as well as in the dough.

How would you describe the taste of a perfectly made tamale?

Well, first of all, you don’t want to taste all dough but you don’t want to taste all meat. It has to be that happy medium. And it has to be spongy, that tells you it’s a fresh tamale. I mean there’s a difference when you pull a tamale out of a pot or you pull it out of a [warming] pan. When you pull it out of a pot it’s fresh and it’s moist. I mean, you can’t beat a tamale that way. And I always tell people that’s the best way to eat a tamale, is straight out of the pot.

So if someone wanted to make them at home, would you sell them some of the masa?

We sell the dough two ways. We sell it just the regular dough, the regular masa dough for tamales. And then you have to add everything to it: the chili powder, the salt, the garlic, and the pork lard, if that’s what you chose – you can use vegetable oil, canola, or any kind of oil, really. And then we sell what we call prepared masa, that has those ingredients already added.

So do you spend most of the days in December making tamales?

Well, during the week I’ll cook them one time of day, and then during the weekend I cook them twice a day. A lot of people know that now: you either come early or you come late.

It’s still technically morning – am I early enough?

(Laughs) You are. Let’s go back to the kitchen.

I’m right behind you.

About Rich Vana