This is what Chauncey Harley says sets Memphis tamales apart from the ones from the Mississippi Delta, from Hispanic tamales, even from the ones in New Orleans:
"They're tamales with soul."
This is how Jonathan Magallanes of Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana describes his tamales as he serves them:
"They're braised Berkshire pork tamales with salsa fresca and crème fraîche."
Hmm. Soul or braised Berkshire pork? Which to choose?
Lucky for us, we can have both of these and plenty in between, as Memphis is definitely a tamale town. We've got the best of several worlds: Plenty of Hispanic, lots of Memphis-style, and even true Delta tamales.
How the Hispanic tamal made its way to town is easy enough: Immigrants opened restaurants, and we're the lucky beneficiaries of their culinary culture.
The Memphis tamale is another story. And don't even try to call anything from Memphis or the Delta a tamal -- the Hispanic singular (though other words are used in various Latin cultures) -- because that's just not how it's done.
There are numerous theories of how tamales ended up in the Delta, which would logically explain how they ultimately ended up in Memphis.
Some believe they came with Mexican migrant workers.
Some say tamales evolved from cush, a spicy cornmeal mush eaten primarily by African-Americans of the Mississippi Delta who often couldn't afford meat.
And some say tamales were always in the Delta, starting with Native Americans.
No matter -- you can read an entertaining and informative history of Delta tamales by the Southern Foodways Alliance (part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi) at tamaletrail.com.
This isn't really about Delta tamales, anyway. We set out to find the best tamales in Memphis, not in the Delta. The connection appears to be an obvious one of migration, though no one we visited could really tell us the origin of the Memphis tamale.
It's not easy even to describe a definitive Memphis tamale, because there are certainly as many -- probably more -- restaurants that sell Hispanic-style tamales as there are stores selling what we're going to call Memphis-style tamales, to wit: A simmered (not steamed) meaty, spicy and wet tamale with a thin layer of cornmeal inside a paper wrapper.
Yes, paper. In the Delta, the tamales are generally held in corn husks, but in town, you get paper unless you're eating Hispanic tamales -- which are usually, but not always, in corn husks. In New Orleans, paper is also standard, lending credence to the common- sense assumption that corn husks were abundant in agricultural communities such as the Mississippi Delta, but wax paper was easier to come by for city folk.
Chauncey Harley owns Hattie's Tamales on Kirby Parkway. His father, Gayle Harley, owns the original Hattie's at Trigg and Lauderdale in South Memphis. Before it was Hattie's, it was Josie's Tamales.
"It all started in South Memphis," Chauncey said, and then he mentions the big gun: Lester Dotson.
Josie was one of his wives, though Dotson's granddaughter, Rita Martin, questions whether she ever got the real recipe.
In the 1920s, Dotson started selling tamales that he made in a shop behind his home on Kimball.
"He sold them from the house, on the corners, from a cart," Martin said.
He eventually opened shop as El Ranchito Tamales, with locations on Lamar, Alcy and Vance before closing in the 1970s. Martin said that "Mr. PeeWee," who started El Terrifico Tamales (more on that coming up), worked for her grandfather.
And she learned from him, too. Today, she makes his original recipe and sells them to the Sykes family at South Memphis Grocery (and at her husband's store, Lester's Grocery, 879 Walker; 946-5930).
"Nothing's changed but the cornmeal." she said.
The tamales are spicy, plenty wet yet not too wet, and folks from all over go to the intersection of Florida and Mallory to get them.
"We've been selling them since about 1975," Ricky Sykes said. (He's pictured on the cover with Martin's tamales.) "People come from East Memphis, North Memphis, Frayser, from all over to get them. They say they're the best in town."
But hold on.
Darrel Bleckley drove in from Arlington to pick up a dozen at the Hattie's -- which claims to have the original recipe, too -- on South Lauderdale a few weeks ago.
"I just had a craving," he explained. "My dad grew up in this area, and that's how I knew about them. We used to buy them from a guy who sold from a cart at Bellevue and South Parkway."
Ah, the tamale cart. It's elusive, often the stuff of legend. Folks will tell you to find the man with the cart on Summer, or on Lamar, on Third or a number of other streets. In my experience, these are worth seeking, even if the vendors won't give out their names. A spicy beef tamale, pulled right from a steaming hot pot inside a cart, will hit the spot.
Besides El Ranchito, longtime Memphians will remember La Rosa and El Terrifico tamales. La Rosa, which was a restaurant where Broadway Pizza is today, went out of business about 40 years ago and was resurrected by Pete Aviotti in 2004. Today, La Rosa tamales are manufactured at Fineberg Packing in Memphis and are served at many restaurants around town, from Huey's to the Belmont to Germantown Commissary. El Terrifico produced tamales at Hollywood and Chelsea for years, and was on the verge of closing down when the Peltz family of Corky's BBQ bought it.
El Terrifico production remained local for as long as it was feasible, Barry Peltz said, but demand forced the company to outsource to a firm in Missouri.
"We're still a mom-and-pop operation, though," Peltz said. "We have never changed the recipe. Why mess with success? We'd only screw it up."
Mark McMinn, owner of the recently opened Dyer's Café in Collierville, would agree. He wanted tamales on the menu, so he went with a tried-and-true Delta tradition:
Pasquale's Tamales from West Helena, Ark. These are Delta style, made by the same Sicilian family for more than 100 years. They come in corn husks, and McMinn said he's the only local seller.
While the Memphis soul tamale knows mostly one style -- meaty, beefy (now and again you'll find turkey), with a thin coat of meal, Hispanic tamales vary tremendously.
"Out of ingenuity and creativity, you can get a tamale with just about any flavor profile," said Magallanes. "It's all about the masa. We really take time with the masa."
(As Chauncey Harley noted, "Our tamales are almost the exact opposite of the Hispanic style.")
Masa harina is the name for the finely ground cornmeal that forms the base for the masa, the name of the mix with lard, seasonings and liquid that makes the base for the Hispanic tamale.
They can be sweet or savory. Cuban tamales, sold at Los Compadres, are a bit of both, with sweet corn in the masa and savory meat inside.
The wrap isn't limited to corn husks, as leaves of the culture are often used, too.
"All over Latin America, people use what's available," Magallanes said. "It's an exciting dish."
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
We spent several days tasting tamales at close to 25 restaurants and small shops around town, and we've come up with a list of 10 of our favorites. (OK, more than that, but we picked five Memphis soul tamales and five Hispanic tamales.)
Go to commercialappeal.com/data/tamales for a map of our favorite places to buy tamales.
Some places offer a choice of mild or spicy beef or turkey tamales. Given a choice, we chose the spicy beef.
South Memphis Grocery (9 W. Mallory; 775-2135). Spicy, with about 70 percent meat to 30 percent cornmeal, these are wet without being mushy and on the spicy side. Tamales are 75 cents.
Hattie's Tamales (1289 S. Lauderdale; 775-3757; 3576 Kirby Pkwy., 363-3150). These are the wettest and meatiest of the tamales, with the barest layer of cornmeal between the meat and the paper. They're 75 cents at the Lauderdale location and $1 on Kirby (they own the Lauderdale store, but rent on Kirby).
Dino's (645 N. McLean; 278-9127). The tamales are made by a neighborhood man and are available straight up or in the Tamales Three Ways. Go for it. The tamales are topped with spaghetti and chili, and served with garlic bread. You can eat forever and barely make a dent in it. Add onions. It's $7.95.
Joe's Grill (902 E. Broadway, West Memphis, Ark.; 870-732-5029). Joe's tamales rival Hattie's for meatiness, and they're a bit different from the other Memphis tamales (is there less soul in West Memphis?). They're wrapped in aluminum foil instead of paper, and you can even see red pepper flakes in the meat. $2.25 for three.
A&R Bar-B-Que (multiple locations, including 1802 Elvis Presley Blvd.; 774-7444). They know in the Delta that barbecue and tamales go together, but surprisingly few places in Memphis sell both. Take advantage of these, which are spicy and 99 cents.
Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana (1215 S Germantown Road, Germantown; 751-1200). These tamales get the same attention as the other items at Las Tortugas, known for making everything from scratch. The masa is light and fluffy, the fillings (chicken, black bean or Berkshire pork are the usual choices) savory and balanced. $7.95 delivers two tamales with chips and salsa. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? A thousand times yes.
La Unica (3214 S. Perkins, 368-3155; 5040 Summer, 685-0097). The menu here is limited, and tamales are the star. Beef, chicken, pork or cheese with pepper are the choices, and the latter is the favorite as it's the spiciest. Huge tamales are $1.09 and are served with red or green salsa.
Las Delicias (4002 Park, 458-9264; 3727 S. Mendenhall, 542-0170). Beef and chicken tamales (the chicken is spicier) are on the menu daily and are good, solid examples of a nice tamale. Ask for the salsa verde with the chicken -- yum. They're $1.50.
New Mexico (1184 Covington Pike; 766-7666). What a surprise to find tamales like these in a restaurant in a convenience store! Big chunks of chicken with salsa verde make up the chicken variety; pieces of roasted pork grace the pork ones. Very good, and $1.10 each.
Los Compadres (3295 Poplar; 458-5731) offers both Mexican tamales, served under a slightly spicy and savory gravy, and a Cuban tamale, which includes sweet corn in the masa. We recommend the Cuban, but like it with a spicy salsa to cut a bit of the sweetness. It's $2.
Dyer's Cafe (141 Highway 72, Collierville; 850-7750) sells Pasquale's Tamales, which we like very much but don't fit in either standard category as they're Delta style. They're wrapped in corn husks, spicy, and not as wet as the Memphis tamale. $4.99 gets you three. Try them with the sweet sauce that comes with, if you must, but eat them like they do in the Delta, with hot sauce and saltines.
La Rosa tamales are served at numerous locations around town, including the Germantown Commissary (2290 Germantown Road, Germantown; 754-5540) and the funky little Escape Alley (651 Marshall; 528-3337), where you'll want to try them covered with chili, cheese, onion, tomato, peppers and so on -- tamale nachos.
All Corky's locations sell El Terrifico tamales, where you'll get three covered with cheese for $4.99.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223