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The Tamales of Today

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, LA – In much the same way that their red flavor burns your lips, their wet grease stains your fingers and their bomb-drop weight rests on your belly, the memories of New Orleans hot tamales have a way of sticking around too.

Many of them revolve around Manuel's Hot Tamales, founded in 1932. For generations of New Orleans people, the sight of a Manuel's vending cart at a street corner up ahead, lit by the dim glow of a railroad lantern and emitting aromatic steam on cold nights, was the embodiment of the peculiar regional version of hot tamales. Simmered in an oily slurry of drippings and tomato sauce, they were a far cry from the traditional Mexican tamales steamed in cornhusks.

But still these cork-sized plugs of ground beef, cornmeal and cayenne could be holiday side dish, after-school snack, late-night drunk food or take-home family dinner depending on the time or season. The Katrina levee failures ended all that. The flood destroyed Manuel's Mid-City headquarters, which doubled as the home for some of the family owners. The business never reopened.

But while the Manuel's legacy languishes, there's no lack of other tamale makers in town eager to sate the craving, including both newcomers to the market and long-established Manuel's competitors.

Merlin Fleury is a bit of both. For decades he supplied a circuit of 7th Ward barrooms and sno-ball stands with his own hot tamales, based on a recipe he found in a newspaper in the 1970s. He and his family opened their own restaurant, called Merlin's Place, last year in Gentilly.

The place for hot tamales in Metairie these days is Guillory's Grocery, a Cajun-style lunch counter tucked into a residential block just off Airline Highway. These are firm, dense, short tamales smothered in gravy dotted with bits of meat. The folks here routinely pack up tamale orders for customers to take along on holiday travel, bringing a humble but nonetheless exotic example of New Orleans cooking to their relatives now living far from home. More often, the tamales are eaten in Guillory's spare deli-turned-dining-room, either on their own or packed with extra decadence into a loaf of po-boy bread with grated cheddar.

On Jefferson Highway, close to the Huey P. Long Bridge, the po-boy shop Joe Sepie's Cafe serves tamales that belong to the larger but gentler school of tamale recipes, where the flavor comes more from the meat than the spice and drippings.

Meanwhile, the West Bank remains the domain of Old Style Hot Tamales, a Gretna-based operation that keeps the old street vendor tradition alive with all its quirks. In Gretna, Marrero, Westwego and Avondale, vendors can be spotted at carts or semi-permanent plywood stands. By the light from strings of Christmas bulbs or Coleman camping lanterns, the vendors fish out paper-wrapped bundles by the dripping dozen. Small and stubby, these tamales have a thin vein of beef, a solid casing of cornmeal and a blazing spice level.

They also are shockingly greasy, and after peeling back maybe just two wrappers your hand is laden with enough oil to accomplish an abstract finger painting on any number of napkins. This is a noteworthy indulgence even by the high standards for excess with hot tamales. But then New Orleans tamales were never intended to be dainty eating.

Guillory's Grocery & Meat Market
3708 Derbigny St., Metairie, 504-833-1390

Joe Sepie's Cafe
4402 Jefferson Hwy., Metairie, 504-324-5613

Merlin's Place
5325 Franklin Ave., New Orleans, 504-284-3766

Old Style Hot Tamales
2004 Claire Ave., Gretna, 504-368-0071

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