All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
On an icy Christmas in Dallas about 34 years ago, Jesse Moreno Sr. scoured the neighborhood, looking for a Mexican restaurant open on the holiday. Amelia Moreno, his wife, was pregnant and craving good, old-fashioned Mexican.
“Jokingly, he told her, 'One day, I’m going to open you a restaurant,'” says their son, Jesse Moreno Jr. “That way, whenever you have a craving for food, we’ll be open.”
Not long after, the Morenos opened a little brick-and-mortar on Columbia Avenue in East Dallas to sell fresh tortillas — Amelia Moreno’s recipe — and tortilla chips. With the success of Mission brand tortillas and Mrs. Baird’s bread, the Morenos figured they needed to adapt to survive. They added tamales to their menu in the late '80s, selling 10 dozen to 15 dozen tamales every week. Now, they craft hundreds of foil-wrapped tamales a week. During the holidays, tamales are all they make.
The process at La Popular Tamale House starts around 5 a.m. A second shift works until 2 a.m., and each tamale is handmade. Corn soaks overnight and is pulverized in the morning. Cooks mill the corn to make the masa, the dough that’s spread in the corn husks and filled with pork, which slowly simmers overnight. Tamales at La Popular aren’t filled with paragraphs of ingredients — just salt, chiles, water, pork and corn.
Three kinds of red chiles, including guajillo and ancho, blush the pork. There’s a muted smoke flavor, and fresh salsa cuts through like a flashlight. Pull into a spot around the holidays, and you’re likely to see the staff steaming tamales and working cornhusks by hand.
Standing in a line that stretches down the sidewalk, no matter the weather, is a Dallas rite of passage, as is praying in that line that La Popular doesn't run out of the tamales you neglected to preorder. The lucky folks who've called in orders for several dozen warm, football-size packs of fresh tamales walk right by the line like they have priority boarding at an airport.
“We do get a lot of customers that get upset that they’re not able to get tamales, but the fact is we continue to make them by hand,” Jesse Moreno Jr. says. “We’re not going to jeopardize the integrity of our product to mass produce by machines.”
The tamale business wasn’t always Jesse Moreno Jr.'s plan. Years ago, while in school for hospitality and education at Texas State University and then the University of North Texas, he worked at La Popular on weekends.
The Morenos' tamales are made with simple ingredients, but the process is arduous. Grinding corn is time-sucking, which is why some kitchens use a flour-based substance — a bag to which you simply add water for the masa dough — to move the process along. The Morenos don’t freeze their tamales.
“We don’t want to be greedy; we don’t want to cut corners — we want to make sure our tamales are made the old-fashioned way," Jesse Moreno Jr. says.
It’s a commitment to make tamales this way.
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"Make sure this is what you want to do," the Morenos told their son. The family business called him home.
In 2013, after customers asked for tables to devour their hot tamales in house, the Morenos opened a small sit-down spot with a tamale kitchen at Peak and Elm streets. Either way, it's hard not to stop in, grab a few dozen pork tamales, softened pinto beans with jalapeños and a big bag of tortilla chips.
This month, La Popular opened up its work to the country. Customers can now have La Popular tamales shipped.
La Popular Tamale House, 132 N. Peak St.