Long before most of us are awake each morning, tamale vendors roll their steaming carts into gas stations, vacant lots or along busy streets, filling orders with dexterous hands. Predawn workers stuff them into bags or their pockets for a warm, comforting carbo-load on their way to their jobs.
Filled with meat, vegetables and cheese and wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, these ancient corn masa cakes are the original fast food. But Sonoma County radio host and businessman Neil Pacheco wants to elevate this ubiquitous street food into something far grander.
Pairing the salsas and long-simmered homemade moles of his Oaxacan ancestors with a handful of California cuisine-inspired ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, finishing salt, edible flowers and microgreens, he’s created Tamales Oaxaquenos, a newcomer to Roseland’s Mitote Food Park.
Pacheco, dressed in a crisp collared shirt and fedora, cuts a striking figure while dishing up tamales under a simple pop-up tent. The host of a weekly radio show called “What’s Cooking Sonoma County” on La Morenita FM and a board member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Pacheco has teamed with longtime tamale-maker Maria Castillo of Tamales Magos to produce the tamales and make his dream a reality.
“These are the recipes from my grandmas and aunts in Mexico. I did research through my relatives,” said Pacheco, who was born in Texas but spent much of his youth in Oaxaca.
Rooted in ancient Mayan traditions and passed down family lines, the sauces and cooking methods are truly what set Pacheco’s tamales apart. And when we say sauces, we mean mole.
Pacheco’s wife, Graciela Cruz, spends days making each batch of mole. Moles take time to prepare and are as unique as the various families and regions they come from. And mole recipes can be a closely guarded secret. Cruz’s includes seven kinds of peppers, chocolate, cinnamon and more than a dozen other ingredients that are roasted, toasted, pounded and simmered into an indescribably magical sauce. You almost feel honored to be part of such pure tradition that’s woven into the fabric of Pacheco’s ancestry.
At the same time, standing in a parking lot, balancing a takeout box on a wine barrel as traffic roars past, brings it all back to community. This isn’t dinner at a four-star restaurant. It’s lovingly created street food that’s OK to spill on your shirt and eat with plastic utensils.
Tamales de puerco en mole Oaxaqueno negro (Pork tamales in Oaxacan black mole): The mix of cinnamon, citrus and chocolate in this long-simmered sauce tastes like Christmas morning. With soft, round flavor rather than the bitter petrol notes often found in premade moles, it’s a velvet comforter of a sauce and the most approachable and delicious black mole I’ve ever had. Shredded pork stands up nicely to the sauce.
Tamales de pollo en mole de epazote (Shredded chicken tamales with epazote mole): Epazote is a magical, pungent herb frequently used in Mexican cuisine. In fact, it often grows in Sonoma County as a weed and is eagerly snapped up for cooking. The flavor is typically described as “medicinal,” with notes of orange, anise, oregano and mint. In this dish, it gives the ruby-red mole a soft citrus note.
Tamales de pollo en salsa verde (Chicken tamales in green salsa): Tart tomatillos are the base for this piquant green sauce that’s made daily. Rather than smothering the tamale in richness, salsa verde lets the rich, earthy flavor of the corn stand on its own.
Tamales de rajas con queso y epazote (Cheese tamales with epazote): This meat-free tamale has strips of chewy cheese and tomatoes inside. Topped with salsa verde (you can get whatever sauce you’d like), it’s a lighter, brighter tamale that won’t weigh you down.
La Guajolota Oaxaquena (Tamale sandwich): A carb-loaded street food that’s a staple in Mexico city, it’s literally a tamale stuffed into a soft roll and then slathered with sauce. Trying to eat one is an adventure in itself. You’ll likely need a roll of paper towels and a stain stick for your shirt, but you won’t walk away hungry.
Tamales de elote (Sweet corn tamales): For novice tamale-eaters, sweet tamales are an easy entry point. Studded with fresh pineapple and topped with crema (or not), they’re more dessert than dinner.
Tamales Oaxaquenos is open 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at 665 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, in the Mitote Food Park.