Southwest's Holiday-Season Food


Southwest's holiday-season food

Embrace tradition, celebrate with tamales from festival, eateries
November 24, 2011 12:00 am

This time of year, the telephone rarely stops ringing at the Tucson Tamale Co.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the gourmet tamale eatery typically sells three times its usual amount of tamales.

"Most of our activity is taking orders. The phone just rings off the hook," said Todd Martin, who opened the shop three years ago this week.

Tamales are a holiday tradition in the Southwest.

On Saturday, more than 100 vendors, including local charities, will be selling tamales at the seventh annual Tamal and Heritage Festival at Casino del Sol.

The event regularly attracts thousands of spectators, who browse the variety of tamales - from traditional red and green chile to exotic gourmet varieties.

"I think it's a great tradition and a great time to come out and buy tamales," said Casino del Sol CEO Wendell Long. "And the charities really benefit from it."

Long said the casino gives the charitable organizations free space to sell their tamales; for-profit vendors have to rent tables.

Last year, more than 5,000 people attended the festival, and vendors sold thousands of tamales, Long said.

A highlight of the festival is a tamale contest. Cooks will compete for $500 prizes for the best gourmet, green corn and traditional tamales.

"I love it because I get all the leftovers," Long joked.

In the gourmet category, "they think of everything. Shrimp. Different meat combinations. Some of them have nuts in them,"he added.

Long said they usually get 50 people vying for best green corn, and 25 in each of the other categories.

The Tucson Tamale Co. offers more than 20 varieties on any given day. Plates start at $2.95 for a tamale and salsa.

The Santa Fe, which is pork and cheese in a green chile sauce, is the shop's best seller, and the green corn variety is probably second, Martin said. In third place right now is the recently introduced Santa Cruz, which is a mild red chile beef in red chile masa made from chile from the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co. in Tumacacori.

Veggie and vegan options are always popular, and the entire menu is gluten-free.

But the holidays are the only time you're going to find "Thanksgiving in Your Mouth," a tamale filled with fresh roasted turkey, carrots, onion and celery, and wrapped in sage masa (available until Christmas). The pumpkin tamale is available year round.

"It's huge," Martin said of the holiday impact. Business starts picking up as the winter residents return, then goes into overdrive right before Thanksgiving.

The shop has shipped to all 50 states, and continues to take orders for Christmas and New Year's.

It's also helped that the shop has gotten a fair amount of national exposure, with mentions on Jane and Michael Stern's, and magazines such as Food and Wine and Travel & Leisure. On Dec. 12, Tucson Tamale will be featured on "FoodCrafters" at 10 a.m. on the Cooking Channel.

Tucson Tamale also sells at several farmers markets in addition to several New Life Health Centers, and grocers such as Whole Foods and Food Conspiracy Co-op, among other places.

Martin recently started opening on Sundays for breakfast, with several early a.m. options that include the Sunrise, with sausage, potato, cheese and peppers; and a Bisbee with soyrizo, pintos and potato, in addition to the regular menu.

Celebrate the tamale

If you love tamales, plan to check out the Tucson Tamal & Heritage Festival. In its seventh year, festivities include tamale-making contests and sale, and entertainment.

• When: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Dec. 3.

• Where: 5565 W. Valencia Road

• Admission: Free. Tamale prices vary.

If you go

Tucson Tamale Co.

2545 E. Broadway; 305-4760;

• Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Cathalena E. Burch and Inger Sandal