Every year, festive holiday food trends come and go. Twists on fizzy cranberry cocktails, Christmas tree-shaped charcuterie boards, and gingerbread everything get their moment in the spotlight before returning to dusty pantries and forgotten shelves. But in Houston, and throughout the state of Texas, tamales are forever.
The hearty roll-up may evolve from year to year, including countless sweet and savory fillings to experiment with, but tamales, and their appearance during the holidays, are far from a food trend. The tradition of hosting a tamalada, a tamale-making party with family and friends, has long been a part of Mexican culture, with chefs drawing inspiration from their own memories and presenting them on menus year-round in Houston.
The origins date back even further. Tamales have been around for centuries, serving as convenient and hearty provisions which men could take to the fields or mines and eat, while disposing of the remnants with little waste – thanks to a biodegradable corn husk or banana leaf wrapper.
The tradition has since spread across the world, with people in the United States, particularly in Texas, enjoying tamales stuffed with a myriad of proteins, like venison, pork, and smoked meats. The many steps and time-consuming labor needed to prepare them are often reasons that they are reserved for special occasions — but when the opportunities to make them arise, the tamales prove to be well worth the wait and work.
Houston’s tamale offerings are strong. Among the bountiful supply of places to find them, there are a slew of tamale-making experts who incorporate their love for the rich tradition and memories of making them during the holidays into every batch.
Here are four people who show the breadth and abundance of Houston’s tamale culture:
Sylvia Casares, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
Chef Sylvia Casares has been making tamales all her life. The Brownsville native remembers the ritual vividly: her family would wake up on the morning of Christmas Eve and get right to distributing tasks and arranging ingredients in a festive gathering of family and friends who would pitch in wherever they could. Her grandmother would manage the recipes, and the rest was a team effort.
“It was all old-cook style — tossing ingredients in a pan or pot. The daughters-in-law and older children would help, whether it was applying the dough to the husk or making little dough balls,” Casares says. “There’s somebody in charge of both the component[s] — the meat and then the dough — and it’s sort of a party that starts fairly early.”
Because the preparation is so labor-intensive, the more extra hands available, the better. But for Casares, the crowded kitchen and bustling party just made her treasure the event that much more.
“It’s something unique. You’re not just whipping up tamales. It’s a celebratory kind of food, and when you gather to make them, [it’s] even more special,” she says. “It’s love and fun. It’s teamwork. It’s memories, and tradition. It’s all of that.”
With her knowledge and wealth of experience, Casares started teaching tamale-making classes at her restaurant back in 2005. Through the lessons, she has helped so many others make memories out of the tamale tradition. “I take a little pride in this,” she admits. “I’ve taught many women and families, with multiple generations doing the class. … It takes the mystery and the fear out of making tamales.”
Arnaldo Richards, Picos
For Arnaldo Richards, the tradition started back home in Mexico. He recalls the residents of his neighborhood gathering together for the first 12 days of Christmas, going from house to house, singing carols, to symbolize the journey of Joseph and Mary. Eating tamales and elote was part of the tradition.
Today, Richards’ Upper Kirby restaurant, Picos, sells handmade tamales stuffed with pork and red chile, chicken and green chile, and portabella mushroom with cotija cheese made the Oaxacan way – wrapped in banana leaves. “We’ve been doing tamales from the very beginning,” he says proudly.
The tamales became so highly sought after, Picos opened a dedicated tamale stand outside the restaurant eight years ago, and has made them available to ship nationwide on Goldbelly.
In the month of December, Picos expects to produce 60,000 tamales, with a staff member making 60 tamales per hour, daily. Each tamale is weighed out, ensuring the proportions of filling and masa are equal. “It’s quite an undertaking,” Richards says. “There is no cutting corners.”
At the tamale stand and in the restaurant, guests can score salsas, chile con queso, and mole negro to dress their tamales, though Richards says it isn’t something he would do.
Guillermo and Didi Quintero, El Alebrije
For Guillermo “Memo” Quintero, tamales have always felt like a significant part of Christmas. He says the tradition is common in Mexico, and he describes the holiday season when people start actively making tamales as a “happy time.”
A native of Oaxaca, Quintero operates a food truck called El Alebrije, which is parked permanently outside Astral Brewing in Garden Oaks and is known for its Oaxacan street food. Along with his wife, Didi, Quintero takes a modern approach to making tamales – steaming them first, then deep-frying, and presenting them in banana leaves.
Topped with sour cream, pico de gallo, and queso fresco, the tamales are far from traditional. “The garnishing is not as typical,” Quintero says. “To have it deep-fried is not as common, but it’s definitely different.”
The truck’s best-seller is the tlayuda, but during the holiday season, amped up advertising and social media posts promoting the deep-fried tamales garner a lot of attention, drawing in people from all over the city. The couple also has a catering business and, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, offers dozens of varieties of tamales, including pollo con mole and rajas jalapeno and cheese, for $15 per dozen.
Ricardo Molina, Molina’s
Ricardo Molina remembers tamales being offered at Christmas at Molina’s for as far back as he can remember, but he admits they weren’t so commonly available in restaurants when he was growing up. “Some families had a traditional tamalada, a tamale party where everybody brings ingredients, sits there, and rolls tamales.” He explains that, with Texas bordering Mexico, everyone around him knew someone who was making tamales.
Molina attributes the increase in popularity of holiday takeout to the tamale craze at Christmas. “When I first got in the business, food to go for people around the holidays … was kind of a deal, but now, it’s a big deal,” he says. “We fill so many dozens of tamales … it just goes and goes, the entire month.”
Locals can conveniently pre-order tamales for pick-up or delivery online, but when one high-profile Houstonian made a request back in the ‘80s, Molina’s made extra special arrangements. President George Bush Sr. requested tamales while serving a term at the White House, and Molina’s siblings hand-delivered them to Washington D.C.
“If you haven’t tried them, try them,” he says. “Everyone needs to have a tamale for Christmas. They bring you good luck.”