We Chat With: Pepe Balanzar of The Tamale Spaceship
It may seem unlikely, but Mexican luchador wrestling and food trucks have quite a bit in common. The Luchador, a professional Mexican wrestler, creates an alter-ego and wears a colorful face mask, all to attract fans and followers. These wrestlers train any time they can, just to perform for a few hours a day. Hopefully, they making a little cash, and, ultimately, keep their honor. Similarly, many of Chicago's food truck operators outfit their trucks in a creative gimmick to appeal to lunchtime followers. They work hard through the night in a kitchen, training to be the best at their niche, only to hit the streets for one to two hours of lunch service.
Pepe Balanzar, the co-founder of The Tamale Spaceship is a huge Luchadores wrestling fan, and along with Manny Hernandez—his partner, co-founder, and manager—has taken this fanaticism for wrestling and food to the streets.
Even though The Tamale Spaceship is a food truck, Balanzar says that it's more of a restaurant on wheels that one would think: "We like to be out of the box because the foods we make are traditional Mexican dishes that we turn into tamales." Along with the tamales, crew boasts Mexican hot chocolate (weather permitting) and guacamole on the menu. Additionally, eaters can find wine pairings for their cuisine on their site via the truck's resident masked sommelier, La Rosa Negra.
Where did you learn to make tamales? Manny has more than 20 years of experience working at restaurants. I have about 15. We learned this business over time. We have a chef that makes the fillings, and a lady that rolls the tamales. Actually, we are more like a restaurant behind the truck. It's home-style, but we work in a professional kitchen.
From start to finish, how long does it take to make one of your tamales? It takes about six or seven hours. We do it the traditional way. All of our sauces, all of our ingredients—we make from scratch. We don't use anything from cans, everything is natural. So we try to bring something new, something different to the table. We bring restaurant food to the street.
Best advice for at-home tamale making? OK. If you try to make tamales at home, you need time, and you need a lot of patience to do that. First of all, if you make the traditional tamale, it takes less time than we do. For traditional, you have to make the dough. Corn masa [dough] for tamales is different, it's not the same as when you make tortillas; this dough is a little firmer. Mix everything and then the corn masa goes onto the corn husk. Then the filling—make sure to keep the filling cold—and fill it and roll it.
What's the secret to good tamales? The fold. It is really hard to do all that. It's also about the sauces and I am going to tell you, you can taste it [in ours] and you are going to keep on eating more. Many people tell me, "Hey, I am going to go make tamales at my home," and they come back and say, "Next time, I am just going to buy from you." It's very difficult and it takes a lot of time. When you make tamales in Mexico, it takes a lot of time, and you invite all of your family. It's like, "Hey, come on, we're going to make tamales, because you need a lot of hands—a lot, a lot of hands."
What's your favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago? There is nothing like Frontera Grill. I think there is a reason they are rated one of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States. Behind the kitchen, there are a lot of Mexicans working on the sauces, working on the fillings and everything—with direction from Rick Bayless. And I think he is the one Mexican cook today, an American, who makes it great. Before, we learned that most things were too spicy to really enjoy the flavors of the sauces.
If the food truck ordinance changes—higher taxes or requiring food trucks to be attached to brick and mortars—how will this affect The Tamale Spaceship?
I don't know exactly how we are going to manage. Maybe try to survive? It's really difficult to work in the streets, and actually we are like a restaurant, but on wheels. We pay taxes like a restaurant, we have people working behind the whole thing. We work out of a professional kitchen. But it's hard. We are limited where we park, and we have to pay parking. And it is impossible between two people to make all this. Many people think we are making a lot of money doing this, but that's not true. It's not true.
Will The Tamale Spaceship be doing anything special for Cinco de Mayo? Yes! We are going to do something special, actually. Our friend, Freddy Sanchez, the chef, is making for us our Chile en Nogada and a Tamal de Pollo with Poblano Mole. The Tamales en Nogada with Walnut Cream sauce. We want to put everything inside the tamale. Something new. We've never made it before. And they are both traditional Cinco de Mayo dishes. We are going to celebrate with these tamales [on the menu] for two weeks.
What about after work? After work, I am going to party, to drink Tequila and to celebrate. We need to celebrate.
The Tamale Spaceship
The Tamale Spaceship blasts off Monday thru Friday, stopping at designated locations beginning at 11:30 am. The best way to find Balanzar, Hernandez, Chica Galactica and the rest of the crew is to follow them via Facebook and Twitter.