"The way I see it, the tamale is like a sandwich," says Todd Martin, who started the Tucson Tamale Company in 2008. "You can do anything with it you can imagine." Among his imaginings are vegetarian tamales and vegan tamales, as well as a thermonuclear "Tucson Tamale" for which the corn masa is supercharged with grilled jalapenos and cheese. Each is hand-rolled and huge, made with ingredients that are sparkling fresh. We especially love what Todd has labeled the Arizona tamale – roasted sirloin and smoky chipotle chilies – as well as the Santa Fe tamale, made with pork loin and green chilies. Not too long ago he came up with the dogmale, a gloss on the notorious Sonoran hot dog!
"Simplify, Sustain and Celebrate" is the motto of Martin's sunny storefront, which vends hundreds of dozens of tamales every week – by mail and take-out for cooking at home, warm for eating on premises at a handful of tables (along with glorious house-made salsas in three heat levels), and at farmers' markets and some dozen grocery stores as far south as Bisbee. Martin is an engaging advocate for the steamed-moist cylinder of cornmeal dough that is most commonly laced with beef and in some places topped with chili. "People think of the tamale as a Mexican thing," he says, "But it goes back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, long before the Spanish. So many cultures around the world have their own take on the concept."
Martin schooled us in green corn tamales, which he offers during their traditional season, about three weeks at the end of summer when corn is ripe and the chile harvest has begun. He explained that tamales ought never be made by a single, solitary cook. They should be the inspiration for a party. In fact, the traditional tamale-making party, a harvest-time ritual in Sonoran Desert country, is so much fun that it changed Todd Martin's life and ultimately led him to abandon his job as a corporate executive and start the restaurant. "The first time I ever made a tamale," he recalls, "was when my sweetheart – now my wife – invited me to her parents' house to make tamales on a Sunday in early September. I expected to spend a few hours helping here and there, but it turned out to be a whole day, and they did it right. They had exactly what you need to make green corn tamales: five bushels of corn, twenty-five pounds of roasted chiles and twenty people. Plus five cases of beer for the tamale makers to drink. That is the rule of green corn tamale making: one case of beer for each bushel of corn."
"This photo was just too good to resist. I assumed that the 'B Vegan'-plated Smart Car belonged to proprietor Todd Martin or one of his staff, given the fact that the Tucson Tamale Company menu does include several vegetarian as well as vegan options. But no, according to Todd, it just happened to be parked in front of the shop the day we visited."