A tamale is like a holiday present -- you never know what's inside the wrapping until you open it, and the likeability of what's inside is often dependent on who gave it to you. That's why we opted to check out two local favorites, one Mexican and the other Spanish-influenced, for this week's Battle of the Tamales.
In One Corner: Ticoz Resto-Bar
5114 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix
If you're unsure what makes up a tamale, traditionally it's a corn-based dough and pulled or ground meat stuffed inside a leaf or corn husk wrapper and steamed. Gringo Tip: Take your tamale wrappers off before eating. There's nothing worse than a mouthful of dry husk to pop your tamale cherry!
Our first stop for this week's Battle was Ticoz, an elegant Latin-influenced restaurant in the brick strip mall on 7th St. just north of Camalback. It's a great romantic date spot, with spicy red walls and leather chairs, amber mood lighting and a huge vine-covered outdoor patio bordered by wrought iron fencing. Oh, and they've got a red sangria to die for.
Ticoz touts their anti-lard stance when it comes to tamales. On the surface that sounds appealing. Lard is, after all, straight-up piggy fat. While that's no good for our waistlines, the alternative is often trans-fat laden margarine, Crisco or butter. Blech. I clung to the pipe dream that Ticoz had found a magically delicious yet fat-free alternative to lard. Uh-huh.
We ordered the classic pork tamale plate. Our dish arrived steaming hot, with small piles of masa and pulled pork in a thick brown sauce plated next to each other. Hmmm...suspicious. No tamale wrapper. No indentations from a tamale wrapper. No proof that the meat had ever been introduced to the masa before they became neighbors on the plate.
"The meat is really soft," my dining companion voiced. "It's almost buttery." Of course, that was partly due to the natural fat which had been left on the meat rather than removed before cooking. I like my meat lean, but at least Ticoz has mastered the art of cooking pork until the blubbery fat is almost dissolved. The thick, tangy sauce was like an earthier version of barbecue sauce.
The lardless masa, on the other hand, was delicious and sweet enough to be dessert. It tasted like Sweet Republic's sweet corn ice cream, with a soft texture complimented by the tougher bits of whole corn throughout. It paired well with the savory, buttery meat. Overall, a nice dish.
In the Other Corner: Tradiciones
1602 East Roosevelt St. in Phoenix
Tradiciones is where you take out-of-towners when they beg for authentic Mexican food. Sure, you could take them to a dive like Carolina's or La Condesa, but let's face it, they usually want the kitsch with the grub. That means senoritas in colorful dresses, roaming mariachi bands and over-the-top decor -- all of which you can find at Tradiciones.
If you go at lunch like we did, it's a milder experience. The entry courtyard is designed to resemble a Mexican village, with tile roofs, booths selling touristy souvenirs and a gorgeous tiled fountain. Inside, the theme continues with bright, cheerful murals and rustic wood tables. Our server was dressed in standard black and white and the canned music was a mix of traditional and pop tunes.
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Our tamale (available in beef only on our visit) came in a combination plate. Drenched in mild red sauce, it was definitely a more traditional version. We could see the corn husk lines pressed into the masa, proof that this once sat inside a tamale wrapper. The masa was a pale, almost sickly beige-yellow color. That likely means... LARD!
We dug into the tamale with gusto, pushing aside the plate's other contents. The masa was firm and palatable, with a savory, almost earthy taste that was a nice contrast to the acidic tomato-based red sauce. The shredded beef underneath was dry, but extremely lean, with not a bit of fat to be found. Nice! "The meat here is a much better quality," remarked my friend. "The other meat had more flavor though. This one's hard to call."
He was right. Tradiciones' tamale was more authentic and had leaner meat. The masa was flavorful and wasn't greasy, despite any lard. In fact, should I take some waist-watching friends of mine there, I'll just call it "manteca" instead of "lard." It's less scary that way. On the other hand, the rich barbecue-like flavor of Ticoz' version and their lard-free sweet masa were very appealing.
The Winner: Tradiciones, by a teensy tiny margin. We'll likely go back to Ticoz for their leaner chicken (or shrimp, yum!) version, but when we're craving an authentic tamale, it's off to Tradiciones.