Erik takes the lid off the metal tray containing the tamales and the vapory aromas of salt, sweet chili, corn, and butter escape. "If you are looking for savory tamales, I have pork, al pastor, and purslane with beans and cheese," he tells me.
Five years ago, this 37-year-old tamalero spent his nights serving alcohol as a strip club waiter. Nowadays, he's scrapped that trade to become one of Mexico City's best gourmet tamale makers. Once you unwrap the corn husks from one of his piping hot tamales, you will quickly discover the fluffy, hot corn filling packed with roasted pork, chorizo with cheese, beef al pastor. He makes his tamales with whatever ingredients he wants, or whatever he finds in his refrigerator.
Just a few steps away from the Viaducto de la Ciudad de Mexico metro station—between a tortas vendor, a taco vendor, and a guy with a huge, boiling pot full of fried potatoes—is where you can find Erik posted up with a little stool, a steamer, and a black sign.
A few months after working at a strip club, he lost his job, so he decided to cook tamales to make some extra cash. And as strip clubs around Mexico City started to disappear, Eric dedicated himself to his tamales as a full-time business.
"I have wasted a lot of food while trying to experiment with these," he explains as he gives me a steamed tamale in brown paper. I take off the corn husks with one hand, and use a plastic spoon to eat the white tamal. I find creamy pieces of my favorite childhood candy. The tamal tastes a bit like essence of both milk and chocolate. "I made one with tequila, but I ruined that one like ten times in a row before I got it right. That day, I made it with sweet dough and nailed the tequila flavor."
Everyday, he wakes up around 11 AM, a habit that has stuck with him from his strip club days.
When his customers arrive, they always ask for custom tamales. "I tell them that I can actually prepare that for them, and they look at me with a completely puzzled look," he tells me as he opens up the steamer.
The guy that sells tacos across from Erik recently asked, "Hey, can you make me a beef suadero tamal, Oaxaca-style, wrapped in a plantain leaf?" The taco vendor gave him a little meat, and Erik began chopping onions, fried them, and put them in the tamal with a bit of cilantro and soaked it in green sauce. Erik tells me all this while making all the gestures over this imaginary tamal on his left hand. "So I took it to him, and that's how I came out with this amazing and huge tamal that he started eating while he was selling his tacos. People started asking about the tamal, and I got a bunch of new clients out of it."
At 9 PM, just two hours after he's settled on his place on the corner of Tlalpan y la Coruña streets, the steamer is already empty. Erik throws waters over the coals to cool them off.
"I came looking for you yesterday, but you weren't there, cabrón. I was craving tamales, but the fact that you have pastor tamales today makes up for the frustration that I felt yesterday" one of his customers complains.
"No, man, I come here on a daily basis unless I have a very important party or I'm dying of a hangover," the tamalero explains and starts laughing. "Those are the only things that would keep me from coming,"
He reflects, "Well, yesterday was El Clásico soccer game."
Erik gives me a playful look. I understand his point. That wasn't just another soccer match. That was "The Match," the mythical encounter between the American and Guadalajara teams, a national classic where both the fans and players' pride are at stake. In that case, it's OK to not have tamales available for one day.
This post is from MUNCHIES Spanish and first appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.