The first thing you should know about San Antonio’s Tamales! festival is that it’s not only about tamales. In fact, like most events that take place at the city’s vibrant and rapidly evolving Pearl Brewery complex, Tamales!—now in its fourth year—presents the ultimate combo platter of food, music, dance, and people-watching, all with a festive and easygoing vibe that somehow recalls a small-town carnival.
In Texas and throughout most of Mexico and Latin America, tamales—bundles of masa (a dough made of corn) and savory or sweet fillings most often steamed in corn husks or banana leaves—are symbolic of the Christmas holidays. They’re traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve after a labor-intensive assembly process. “It’s hard work, but I find it relaxing,” says Gloria Solis, who teaches a tamales-making workshop at San Antonio’s Witte Museum in November. “We get all of our friends and family together, and everybody pitches in while we reminisce about the year before.”
During the festival (Dec. 7 this year), that friendly energy also permeates the Pearl, a 22-acre site in a nook of the San Antonio River that for more than a
century housed some of the city’s most successful breweries. Wandering beneath strings of colorful papel picado—paper folk art traditional to Mexico—a dad hoists his young son onto his shoulders for a better view of a mariachi ensemble dressed in black and gold. Couples sit at red café tables, unwrapping tamales and toasting with plastic cups of Modelo Especial. A convivial queue of tequila-tasters snakes its way from the Pearl’s restored Stables building, which housed the brewery’s draft horses in the late 1800s.
Fest-goers chow down on all manner of novel festival fare—tres leches cake, spicy corn cups, bowls of posole and chile con carne, chalupas piled with beans and cheese, cinnamon-sprinkled buñuelos, kettle corn. And the people watching can’t be beat: A woman in flamboyant Christmas couture pushes a cart full of tail-wagging, costumed chihuahuas, who seem oblivious to their feather boas and miniature velvet top hats. “I never let my babies go out of the house naked,” she tells me, then disappears into the crowd.
No disrespect for the corn dog or other stick-impaled delights, but tamales may be the ultimate fair food. Not only are they simple to eat while walking, pushing a stroller, or guiding an easygoing dog through the crowd, but they’re virtually waste-free, since their “wrappers” are biodegradable. With more than 40 vendors and 25,000 festival-goers, though, that’s a lot of corn husks and banana leaves.
Brenda Tellez of Tellez Tamales says she brings 400 dozen tamales to the festival each year—chicken, pork, bean, plus jalapeño-spiked versions of each—and she usually sells out. “Ours are traditional, made-by-hand tamales, from recipes passed down from my grandparents,” she says. “There are so many different kinds of tamales here; I love going around to all the booths and trying the different types.”
Indeed, there are tamales made with pork, chicken, beef, and beans. There are chicken mole tamales, poblano-cheese tamales, black-bean tamales with queso fresco. There are sweet tamales made with pumpkin and pineapple, coconut, cream cheese and strawberries, and cinnamon and pecans. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like tamales,’” says Michelle Mañon, whose company, Tamahli, offers dozens of different versions that represent the different culinary traditions of Mexico—including a pumpkin-raisin version that’s delicious for breakfast. “But there are so many different kinds!”
“In the northern parts of Mexico, it’s common to use corn husks as the wrapper,” says Johnny Hernandez, whose restaurant La Gloria was one of the Pearl’s first eateries. “But along the coastline, bananas grow well, so banana leaves are the wrap of choice.”
Besides the chance to taste the culinary heritage of Mexico and Latin America, here’s another reason to check out the fest: It’s a great introduction to some of San Antonio’s most popular and respected restaurants. Next time I’m in the city, I’ll make a point to visit Paloma Blanca, whose pumpkin-pineapple creation opened my eyes to the delights of sweet tamales. Nelly Mendoza introduced her mother’s recipes from Veracruz when she joined the restaurant 11 years ago, and she also came up with the restaurant’s increasingly popular gluten-free menu. “We make pork tamales year-round, but during the whole month of December, we make four to five different kinds, including vegetarian versions,” says Nelly.
Bundles of deliciousness, just in time for the holidays: When it comes to tamales, you’ve got the whole package.