Now open: Pilsen's Dia de los Tamales

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Every day is Dia de los Tamales
Last Thursday and Friday were so cold I sympathize with Cesar Ruelase, the local who, disgusted with Tom Skilling's penchant for predicting weather less foul than the reality, has launched a campaign to demote him from meteorologist to "weather guesser." Things brightened when I hit the new Pilsen storefront Dia de los Tamales, now going on its third week. Here are tamales about as far from the wares of the Tamale Guy as you can imagine: for example, there's an Italian beef tamale, a cheeseburger tamale, and a chocolate-peanut butter tamale.

Also behind the "rock 'n' roll" catering company Get Off the Couch, husband and wife Sam and Jeni Wahl and their partner and chef, Keith Carlson, have been working the Pilsen Community Market for the last couple years, trying out specials such as the chile relleno tamale (now dubbed "the People's Choice"). They'll continue to offer select varieties at the market this summer; meanwhile, the full roster's available at the storefront.

Jeni Wahl with Dia de los Tamales homage to the Chicago flag
  • Kate Schmidt
  • Jeni Wahl with Dia de los Tamales' homage to the Chicago flag

Several items reflect Jeni's Cuban heritage, among them the tamale with slow-roasted Cuban pork, seasoned with garlic and naranja agria (bitter orange). The meat also turns up in the Atomic Pork tamale, which features "apocalypse sauce," a creation of Carlson's made with ghost peppers, the world's hottest commercially available chile. Game to try it, I was surprised to detect no heat at all—initially. The chile's slow-building but potent effect made me thankful for Carlson's restraint (though as a precaution, "We do have crema available," Sam says).

Even better are the Cuban garbanzos (aka potaje de garbanzos), from a recipe handed down by Jeni's grandmother. Stewy, meaty, and comforting, this is a literal killer, made with bacon, ham, chorizo, smoked pork, and pork butt, something I'm glad I didn't know prior to scarfing it down.

To the left, vegetarian Cuban black beans; to the right, Cubas answer to cassoulet
  • Kate Schmidt
  • To the left, vegetarian Cuban black beans; to the right, Cuba's answer to cassoulet

Said scarfing was done at home—Dia de los Tamales is takeout only—but the shop's environmentally friendly packaging keeps things surprisingly warm. Across town, Friend of the Food Chain Mary Mueller was digging in as well, a guinea pig for the apple cobbler tamale. "I was sitting there alone in my apartment, and I gasped it was so good," she reports.

Mueller also liked the not-too-spicy buffalo chicken, especially the blue-cheese dipping sauce it comes with; this and other accompaniments (salted caramel with the apple cobbler, house-made salsas with the pork tamales) are made in-house. In fact, it may be these that really elevate the tamales here—the roasted red pepper crema served with the pepper and goat cheese tamale gave it some welcome kick. Next time I'll go with the combo, a steal at $10 for two tamales with rice, beans, and a soda.

Dia de los Tamales, 939 W. 18th, 312-496-3057; Sun, Tue-Thu 11 AM-7 PM; Fri-Sat 11 AM-9 PM

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