Your New Favorite Tamale Awaits in an Unlikely Place

A chile Colorado tamale made from nixtamalized heirloom blue corn.EXPAND
A chile Colorado tamale made from nixtamalized heirloom blue corn.
Chris Malloy
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There are many great places to get tamales come the holiday season, or even just a weekend lunch. One of the very best tamales in the Valley, one perfectly tailored to the cooler months, is being plated in an art gallery. And as you unwrap it to eat, you feel a hot rush zip through you.

On Sundays in Palabra, the heavily right-angled downtown space next to The Churchill, excellent tamales are served for five hours. Beginning at 10 in the morning, they emerge from a glass-fronted kitchen, fueled by an oven and induction burners, and into a seating area where the walls have the look of computer paper. And there people sit sipping espresso and forking steamy masa, below rotating art of many media in the hybrid space, which unites a coffee shop, kitchen, gallery, and hair salon.

The hair salon in the back, curator Jorge Ignacio Torres says, lets the other concepts "grow."

Though Palabra isn’t new, it is worth revisiting. There aren’t many public places where you can hear five Bob Dylan songs in two hours. There aren’t many places where you can sip a cajeta latte on a firm, truncated table below a projector-beamed movie, so faint you don’t realize it’s there for 20 minutes — just one realization here that puts you outside of rote experience, allowing you to consider things anew.

So consider those tamales from Pasado, the name of Palabra’s kitchen. On Sundays, Pasado has been serving food, or, in Torres’ preferred language, “presenting” food. Maybe posole. Maybe ceviche. And, given the season, lately tamales. Pasado’s limited savory food offerings have drawn a loyal Sunday following.

And here, though the space is modern, the tamales feel ancient.

Tamale assembly, with Torres in the background.EXPAND
Tamale assembly, with Torres in the background.
Chris Malloy

“It’s being able to pay homage to my culture through different childhood plates,” Torres says. Along with tamales, on Sundays these days there might be champurrado, frothy earthen mugs of Mexican hot chocolate hiding shards of cinnamon, the beverage as thick as polenta. “That’s the holiday drink,” Torres says. “That was essentially our, from Thanksgiving on — that was what we ate every holiday.”

Torres, who before his recent years curating Palabra kept a Grand Avenue art gallery called Propaganda, makes the champurrado from Oaxacan chocolate, toasted cinnamon sticks, piloncillo, local milk, and pinole for frothy thickness. Tamales are made with the same intention.

They come steaming on geometric earthen plates, thrown by Miro Made This, smooth packaging of banana leaves ribbed with light smears of char. Away from the glistening tamale, off in the dark space of the plate, you see a seedy scoop of toasted tomato-and-pepper salsa.

Unpaper your tamale; depending on the day and your order, they might be blue.

Torres shapes them from blue corn he sources from Mexico through a Californian importer. He goes out of his way to use heirloom varieties, the kind disappearing from parts of Mexico as people have turned to more convenient food sources and processes. Using his importer allows him to counter this trend. “They’re allowing this very traditional part of our scene to exist, and to progress,” Torres says.

Prep before the actual roasting or steaming of tamales takes eight hours, and includes nixtamalization.

On a recent Sunday, banana leaves were tightly packaged with masa. The masa was dense and a little fluffy, fragrant and dancing through subtle worlds of flavor in the way corn can, with more florality and gentle nuttiness and dim perfume of the earth than you might expect. The joy is low-toned, more folk music than electric guitars playing it loud.

Banana leaf unwound, a chile Colorado tamale showed hints of the guajillo and chile de arbol ruddiness deep in its purplish body. A pasilla and queso Oaxaca tamale was more solidly colored, though deeply vegetal.

Tamales aren't the only art form on display at Palabra.EXPAND
Tamales aren't the only art form on display at Palabra.
Chris Malloy

There are no unnecessary parts to these tamales. They are stripped down to essences. It is all deeply soulful and acutely considered, warming you, warming the space.

“The way I explain Palabra,” Torres says of the greater white-walled space with its discrete cogs, the youngest being the kitchen and its still-evolving food, “is that it’s like the mom. It’s all under the same direction, but at different wavelengths. They coexist. Now it’s about figuring out timeframes.”

For now, he presents food like tamales on Sundays, rolling out a curated menu more anchored in the past than the rest of Palabra. After all, “Pasado,” the name for the kitchen, means “past,” while the coffee bar, Futuro, has a name that looks more into the unknown ahead.

"The idea of presenting food — it needed to live in a time slot where it was the focus,” Torres says.

Sundays give it a prime focus, one rooted in tradition. But Torres is still tinkering with Palabra’s concept, with how it puzzles into his wider project. He says he’s thinking about offering grab-and-go food, available during a wider window. Who knows what brave new wrinkles the future can bring?

Pasado (inside Palabra).
909 North First Street; 602-730-3227.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays

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