Tacos are macho passion; tamales are motherly love (even when they're sold by tamale men at bars or by hipster tamale trucks). Kids have a natural affinity for tamales, and even more than that, Christmas and tamales are natural partners, since the pot of 50 or 100 tamales is easy for the whole family to nosh on and feel nurtured as you prepare a more attention-getting holiday dinner. It's okay, tamales don't mind when the spotlight goes to others, any more than mamas do.
Tamales are all over the city but for whatever reason, there's a particular concentration of tamale spots on the southwest side, around Gage Park, the old white ethnic South Side. The reason may be that they're all owned by the same people, since two of them are named Rosa's and a third, Manolo's, is related to them (or so somebody claims on Yelp). I stopped into one on South Kedzie, between 56th and 57th.
Today they advertise Oaxacan tamales, but the tile on the wall makes it clear that that's a recent change from the pizza that was the main fare not long ago. Behind the counter several big steel pots burble away. I look at the menu and order one Oaxacan tamale.
What's a Oaxacan tamale? It's a regional variant of the standard tamale, best known for being wrapped in a neatly folded banana leaf (rather than the usual corn husk), which manages the trick of resembling both tobacco and the pouch it goes in. Besides the banana leaf, Oaxacan tamales are wetter than non-Oaxacan tamales—the masa is soaked in broth—and at least in Chicago, they sometimes seem to dabble in ingredients beyond just pork or chicken alone. Here's my Oaxacan tamale:
Um, yeah, so that's not a Oaxacan tamale. Not sure what happened there, since the guy's English and my Spanish overlap on only a handful of food words and nothing more. It's a little sad-looking, or so I imagine, but hey, I'm here, try it and then I can write this place off.
But my tamale has other ideas. It's damned good. Soaked with fat and a little chile heat, toothsome pork and masa... it's nice. They know what they're doing here, as they should since they have another Rosa's barely two blocks away on 55th. It's a comfy pleasure in the heart of Tamale Chicago.