Wake Up Call

Here Today, Gone Tamale

Sometimes finding great Mexican food turns out to be an adventure.

One of the most amusing versions I've ever had was in Krakow, Poland, last year. In a spiffy new restaurant on the fashionable Rynek (Market Square), I ordered a beef taco: gloppy ground meat on a floppy corn tortilla smothered in the Polish parsley -- otherwise known as cabbage.

Sans the cabbage, it didn't taste that different from the franchise Mexican and tired old cheesy Tex-Mex we get here.

Fusion Southwest cuisine, though filled with surprises I often love, can be too contrived when all you want is something basic.

Even here in Arizona you have to do some poking around for reasonably priced, honest Mexican food. Tamales form the heart of my quest, and I've developed a few local favorites.

Years ago, a fellow "foodie" pointed me to Guadalupe, a jalapeño-shaped town spiked in between South Mountain and Tempe. The town's few businesses and administrative buildings string out along its intersecting main streets, Avenida del Yaqui and Guadalupe Road.

I'd heard about Guadalupe's Yaqui population and its Easter Deer Dance rituals and thought there might be even more to recommend it to visitors than the annual celebration. I found a community with a character and a flavor all its own.

On my first visit, some friends and I dropped into Filito's, mainly a takeout stand with a plain dining room off to the side. We ordered the napolitano cactus burrito. Its grassy flavor takes some getting used to, but at Filitos' prices you can afford to experiment. I've gone back for great chimis and juicy machaca burritos.

But it's the green corn tamales, made by Filito's sister, on which I've hooked many a visitor to Arizona. Smooth-grained and creamy, they have a sweet corn taste like no others I've ever had. And best of all, they're the only tamales I've had north of the border that still seem to be made with LARD. Yes, you need it for the authentic taste, and as we now know, it's fine to eat in small quantities. Even if it weren't, I'd risk my life for it.

That first trip they were only $1 each. But even at today's $1.50, they're cheap for such a well-made example of a classic food. I often buy a half-dozen or more to take home, stick in my freezer, then use for all kinds of hors d'oeuvres. I unwrap and slice them into round disks straight from the freezer, then brown them on both sides. Because they're starchy, it's best to use a heavy, well-seasoned black spider (cast-iron frying pan) and a little bacon fat. Top the rounds with sautéed mushrooms, grated cheese, spaghetti sauce, sliced olives, finely chopped herbs, smoked salmon, or goat cheese, and you can push polenta outta the way.

Just next door to Filito's, the goods at Flores Bakery look rustic, but a fine hand behind the scene makes them delicate to the bite. The glass cases bulge with lemon-, pumpkin-, and pineapple-filled empanadas and piglet-shaped, gingerbread cochitos. During November's Day of the Dead celebrations, pan muerto (bread of the dead), is sold in the shape of skeleton heads. At Easter, the baker cuts the ever-present egg breads to resemble lambs.

With Flores' down-to-earth prices (under 50 cents for most pastries), on that first trip we picked some of everything. And, sitting down at an outdoor table with cups of earthy coffee, we traded half-eaten pastries between us. The lemon or pineapple empanadas were the favorites. But the pumpkin empanadas are unusual and not too sweet. We went back for take-homes, especially the big, tender, almond-filled wedding cookies.

Back at Guadalupe Road, El Tianguis Market bustled with customers, and tinselly mariachi music rang out. In this bright-blue plaza, the merchants fill their shops with quirky merchandise. At DeLeon Western Wear we browsed the fine collection of hats, boots, saddlery and riding gear while Rodrigo DeLeon explained the uses for gear unfamiliar to us.

And we asked about the music.

"That's the band. They play here every Saturday afternoon," he explained.

Across the square at El Taquito we sipped beer in the shade and danced with each other and the regulars, who are not too shy to invite a good dancer for a spin. The mariachis played on as we crossed the street for our last stop, the Farmer's Market. We counted seven varieties of chiles, including the hottest habaneros, and bought some lemony burro bananas from among the four different kinds the market stocks. They also have a very good tamale, but I found them more loosely packed than Filito's and not as sweet and savory.

To find other tamales around town to your taste, try Sylvia's La Canasta, a newly renovated and friendly little neighborhood spot at Seventh Avenue and Missouri. Sylvia's tamales are tightly packed and come slathered in a tangy green chili sauce with melted cheese. These are grainier, but I like the hearty texture and flavor.

Another great tamale is at Pico Poco Tacos at 40th Street and Camelback. Charry, the colorful and personable Cuban-born owner, makes hers stuffed with her fabulous carnitas and her secret recipe mole. The pork, slow-cooked in orange juice, infuses her fine-textured masa with a mellow smokiness. At Charry's cheerful emporium, everything has a fresh-made taste and stamp of originality.

"We only used to make them for special order and Christmas," she says, "but demand has been so great, we make them often. But when they're gone they're gone, because we'd rather do them fresh again next day."

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Merilyn Jackson