John Hernandez, tamalero and owner of Casa Masa, and I first met because he was making fun of me for taking pictures of my lunch. "Your food's going to get cold if you keep taking pictures of it," he said, looking at me with a 'just eat it already' look. "I know, I'm the worst," I said, all the while arranging things on the table for the photo. Gram or it didn't happen. We got to talking and on my way out John mentioned that he does tamale pop ups. *record scratch* You make tamales? Why didn't you tell me this earlier?
Jokes aside, John is a truly great tamalero. This summer I've been visiting the Casa Masa pop-ups in Dallas, often appearing at the Double Wide's monthly flea market by the Dallas Farmers' Market, breweries, gallery showings, and other events. When I visited Casa Masa at the Double Wide he was set up inside a classic Airstream mobile trailer slinging six different kinds of tamales. Green chile pork; cilantro chicken with roasted tomatoes; black beans, jack cheese and jalapeños; zucchini, carrots, squash, kale, roasted corn and red peppers; sweat potato, kale, cumin and shallots; ancho chile brisket with queso and pico de gallo. I'd never seen tamales like this before. The choices were overwhelming, so I did what any reasonable person would do and ordered one of everything. He pulled the warm, corn husk wrapped tamales from their steamy beds, and in seconds I was enjoying some of the best tamales I've ever had.
I sat down inside the airstream and tried the first one. Simple but flavorful queso oaxaca, the slightly sweet, mildly smoky roasted chiles, the perfectly seasoned masa, smooth and luxurious. "Damn," I thought. "I expected them to be good, but not this good." I tried the pork. The texture was phenomenal. It wasn't stringy or dry, it was juicy but not soggy. For something made out of masa and pork, it felt light. Then I tried the veggie options. Sweet potato and cumin with kale was surprisingly one of my favorites. I'm so used to sweet potato being, well, sweet. Making it savory with cumin and other spices gave it a whole new flavor. And I know everyone is eating kale these days because it's good for you, but let's be honest, kale doesn't taste good. It's tough and the flavor is strong in all the wrong ways. John makes kale taste good. I don't know what kind of South Texas magic he puts on these tamales, but I'm not complaining.
John comes from a family of tamaerlos and restauranteurs, learning to make tamales with his mother and grandmother. Making tamales is a passion for John, and his love for the husk-wrapped bundles of masa really comes through in every bite. But more than that, it's a way for John to carry on the family tradition and continue to honor and cherish what his mom and grandma taught him while at the same time making the tamales his own.
As I snapped a few photos of the last two tamales before devouring them and heading out, an older gentleman outside the airstream called out to me, "You're supposed to eat it, not take pictures of it!"
I shrugged my shoulders, "it's not the first time someone's told me that."
He started laughing. "Now listen, the first time I saw people doing that I said 'that's so stupid', and now look at me!" he held up his phone for me to see, "Every damn meal, I'm taking a picture of it!" He smiled, dismissed me with a wave and was gone.