Last year, Neiman Marcus rightfully got ridiculed for its tamal special. For $92 (plus $18 shipping and handling), the brand would send six dozen chicken, beef, pork, or a combo of each tamal to your home. The anger was twofold: Why was a luxury brand hawking the most humble and universal of Latin American meals? And who the hell would charge so much for tamales? (Although if you do the math, one tamal averaged out to just under two bucks — not cheap, but not bad.)
But if you thought $92 was pricey for what Latinos can eat for free (and fresh!) basically every day from now until El Día de los Reyes Magos, then you haven’t heard about Taco María’s first-ever tamal special: $72 for just a dozen, which averages out to $6 for one.
The Costa Mesa restaurant offers three types: rajas, pork, and strawberry. The ingredients listed on its website use all the buzzwords of a hip farm-to-table spot: “braised Beeler’s pork,” “charred strawberry jam,” “cultured butter,” and the ever-elegant “seeded jalapeño.”
But hold your outrage. Taco María isn’t just some Rick Bayless wannabe looking to gentrify Mexican food. Owner-Chef Carlos Salgado is one of the most important Mexican-American chefs in the United States right now, and he has two James Beard nominations to show for it. He’s known for his spectacular food, which is informed by the motherland but also incorporates fine-dining techniques, a style that food critics calls Alta California cuisine. It’s the most important movement in Latino restaurants since Cuban-American chefs enthralled diners with Nuevo Latino dishes in the 1990s – and Salgado is one of Alta California’s best.
So those tamales? Worth every penny. The masa is blue, because Salgado imports heirloom, non-GMO corn from Mexico — not only because the earthy taste makes yellow corn tortilla seem as tasty as a vinyl record, but because he wants to support Mexican farmers who are fighting the battle against homogenized corn and masa harina. The other ingredients for his tamales come from sustainable farms that pay good wages to their workers — Salgado researches his producers before making any purchases. He does all of this in order to challenge our current food system, where exploitation at every step, from the picker to the waiter, is the unfortunate norm.
The tamales are slender, sure, but make up for their relative lack of size with assertive flavors that never overwhelm. The pork tamales features three heat sources — pipián, guajillo, and New Mexico chiles — that transform the masa and puerco into a multilayered revelation. Even better are the strawberry ones: Within the moist masa is smoky strawberry jam tweaked with that fancy cultured butter — it’s as refined as an English tearoom but as Mexican as the Pyramid of the Sun. I’ve yet to taste the tamales de raja, but I can’t wait because it’s my favorite tamal of them all, so I’ve ordered a dozen.
“I wanted to share with my staff and our guests a meaningful tradition from my family,” says Salgado when asked to explain his tamal special. “The restaurant, after all, bears my mother’s name, and my abuelitas, and their mothers, and on and on. And we also wanted to share the very special corn we are privileged to work with, and give our mostly Mexican-American staff the opportunity to share in the gesture of a tamalada together. Because our restaurant is not just a business, it is a family and my vision for a better world.”
Order your dozen here. Pickup is this Saturday at the restaurant — see you there!