How to Make Tamales, by East Dallas’ La Popular

Jesse Moreno Sr. teaches a tamale class online.
Jesse Moreno Sr. teaches a tamale class online. Philip Kingston
I feel like a lot of kids are going to be asked to report to the class in a few months what they learned during quarantine.

Mommy Likes Wine. I Miss Unlimited Screen Time. I Forgot How to Tie My Shoes. Why Zoom Class Was Better. Daddy Is Bad at Math Homework. My Cat’s Breath Smells Like Cat Food.

I Learned to Make Tamales!

No, for real; I learned to make tamales in a Zoom class taught by the legendary Jesse Moreno Sr., with an assist from Jesse Moreno Jr., of La Popular Tamale House.

It was so fun. We picked up the tamale kit from La Popular’s location at North Fitzhugh Avenue and Bryan Street (is there a better intersection in Dallas? La Popular, Jimmy’s Food Store, Khao Noodle Shop, Dallasite Billiards, and a super sketchy C store).

The kit contained premixed masa dough, pork filling, vegetable filling, hojas de maiz and the Morenos’ excellent salsa.

Most of the participants were moms with their kids, but Jesse Sr. does a great job of making the process understandable for cooks of any skill level. He should be good at this: He’s been teaching tamale making to Dallas ISD students for more than 30 years.

“He started teaching at Stonewall [now Mockingbird Elementary] when we were students there,” Jesse Jr. says. “He’s always loved cooking. He used to stand on a chair to help his mom cook.”

Jesse Sr. got started in the masa game with a tortilla factory, but when Mrs. Baird’s and Bimbo started selling cheap tortillas in bulk, he and many other small bakers couldn’t compete. Mexico is grappling with similar issues today.

Then one icy night in East Dallas when Jesse Sr.’s, wife was pregnant, she was craving Mexican food. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any place open, and that’s when he decided to convert his operation to tamales and to add a restaurant component.

“That’s why we’re always open on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Jesse Jr. says. “We want people to be able to find a good, hot meal when no one else is open.”

click to enlarge
Tamales prepped and cooked at home
Philip Kingston
Tamale making is traditionally a family event performed as an assembly line for centuries before Henry Ford stole their idea.

“It used to be the abuelas and their daughters and granddaughters making the masa and cooking the tamales. Men would slaughter the pig and hang out together while the women worked. Now that you can just buy pork, you see men participate in the process,” Jesse Jr. says.

A friend in South Texas loves to tell the story of how offended she was when the family bought an electric grinder for the corn so her daughter didn’t have to use the hand-cranked one she had suffered with. She leaves out that her mother used a molcajete.

The La Popular class required none of that labor. The masa dough comes perfectly premixed, so the process is accessible.

The most challenging part is spreading the masa on the hoja  (corn husk) evenly. The stuff has the consistency of wet Play-Doh. Jesse Sr. does this in one motion. He can crank out hundreds of perfect hojas an hour. We cannot. The best implement in our kitchen turned out to be a flat, silicone spatula.

Then you spoon in about 3 ounces of filling. The spicy pork that came with the kit was the classic, but the vegetable filling the Morenos gave us was amazing, too. Jesse Sr. has had health concerns over the years and was one of the early tamale chefs to eliminate lard from his recipe.

The fat in his masa is vegetable oil. And, La Popular will make you a custom filling when you order tamales. (Mine is chicharron and bean.)

Wrapping the tamales is surprisingly easy. Once the hojas  are soaked in hot water, they seem to want to roll up into the right shape. Then you fold over the narrow end and lightly pinch the open end. If you’re fancy, you can tie the narrow end into a bow.

Cooking requires a steamer, but even an in-pot stand steamer will do. We used an electric canner since I’m sheltering in place with a woman whose hero is Laura Ingalls Wilder, and it’s perfect for this application.

Jesse Sr. says to put a ball of foil in the middle of the steamer so the tamales can cook with their open ends up. An inverted bowl works, also.

Use high heat, and you can probably get a batch done in an hour and a half.

OK, COVID confession time: I had a little trouble enjoying this class because the week before, Jesse Jr. announced that La Popular was temporarily closing because their Paycheck Protection Program loan did not come through, as was the case for many small businesses.

“We’re looking at it every week, and we’re trying to be creative. We’re selling tamale kits and asking people to preorder holiday tamales. Things change day by day,” Jesse Jr. says.

To keep up to date on when La Popular does another tamale class, follow them on Facebook.

La Popular Tamale House, 4823 Bryan St. (East Dallas).
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