Tamale production is in full swing in the Southland. With time-honored recipes, people concoct fillings and dough to prepare the holiday delicacy in homes and restaurants. Production usually tapers off sharply after the holidays, except at Homegirl Cafe. The Los Angeles eatery plans to continue and ramp up its tamale production into next year – with the purpose of transforming lives.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the doors are locked and the lunchtime crowd is long gone at Homegirl Cafe. Manager Patricia Zarate says it’s time for the restaurant’s kitchen to shift from crafting salmon tacos and other diner fare to turning out comfort food en masse – artisan steamed tamales. "The shift is beginning right now and we’ll be here at least 8 hours, from 8 to 10 hours, just to supply tomorrow’s orders. Because of the holidays we have plenty of orders. We will be making about 4 to 500 tamales tonight," she said.
That’s a lot of masa – cornmeal dough. There’s no tamale-making machine – just the human touch of six women, including Victoria Ruelas. "See how I’m doing it right here, it’s so that you can pull it a certain way, so you can have all the masa wrap around the meat because the meat goes in the middle," she said as she used a spoon to spread the fluffy corn dough on moistened corn husks.
Homegirl Cafe is a 5-year-old offshoot of Homeboy Industries. It occupies a corner of the organization’s downtown L.A. building just north of Union Station. It trains and employs former gang members under the group’s motto, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Patricia Zarate began the tamale operation to advance that ideal. "We have six people working in the tamale production right now, just for the holidays, and I hope to have 24 people producing tons of tamales," she said.
That's not an exaggeration. In the coming months Homegirl Cafe is taking two steps that will eventually double its tamale output: a new shop in L.A. City Hall, and another at Los Angeles International Airport. "It is right after that checkpoint, security checkpoint, so once people are on the other side they can buy things, bring them onto the airplane," Zarate said.
She wants Homegirl Cafe tamales to travel the country and the world as edible souvenirs of Los Angeles. In the tradition of health-conscious California dining, these will be lard-free. "It was a matter of coming up with the right, right amount of canola oil and the time of beating time, so that it will be a fluffy tamale. I want to have a cake-like tamale, a spongy tamale, rather than a heavy, flat tamale," she said as she pulled a few piping hot tamales out of a washing-machine-size pot.
The varieties include roasted poblano pepper with cheese, a garbanzo bean-mushroom vegan tamale and a green tamale made with spinach-infused corn dough. Zarate believes in the transformative power of tamales. "The humble tamale can change people’s lives, and I want to continue making the traditional tamale, with a little bit of health conscious flavor for everybody to enjoy them, buy them, to bring employment to Los Angeles," she said.
Proof of that desire is 48-year-old Victoria Ruelas. She applied to make tamales at Homegirl Cafe despite her criminal record. "Even though I had a background, they still hired me, which is good. And I like the job. I have money. I’m away from drugs. It's hard to be off drugs. When they give you a chance that’s even better for you," Ruelas said.
That’s a message ready to travel from the cafe kitchen to tables around the world, inside savory, corn-husk tamales.