Walk into any one of the seven Delia’s Specializing in Tamales locations during lunchtime on a Sunday, and you’ll see a dining room packed with families devouring the chain’s signature dish. Cars waiting in the drive-through line wrap around the building too. Founded in 1998 by Delia Lubin, the family-owned chain now has six outposts across the Rio Grande Valley and one in San Antonio. Delia’s tamales are familiar and comforting to many Texans; you can find a similar style sold out of trunks of cars parked in supermarket lots, as well as at neighborhood panaderias. Lubin got her start in a similar fashion. She began selling tamales from a cooler door to door, while today you’re just as likely to spot small-batch sellers on Instagram or Facebook Marketplace. Tamales may sound simple enough—they’re thin tubes of masa-and-lard dough wrapped in corn husks—but they come in a mind-boggling variety of styles and flavors. The specialty section of the Delia’s menu offers a peek into that diversity, alongside the standard, pork, beef, chicken, and beans. There are corn-filled tamales and even a dessert tamale with sweet cream cheese—and that’s just the start.
Along with corn and the tortilla, tamales are one of the most iconic Mexican foods. They predate Spanish conquest by up to seven thousand years. The word “tamal” (the Spanish singular for tamale) comes from the Nahuatl tamalli, meaning cornbread wrapped in leaves (or husks) and cooked in a pot. Tamales are important in the culture and gastronomy of Mexican cuisine first for their deliciousness, and also for the numerous regional varieties of wrappings, fillings, and masa types. There are tamales for specific festivities, such as Día de los Muertos. Among them is the complex tamal de boda (wedding tamale). The large rectangular tamale is composed of masa dissolved in water that is strained and then mixed with lard. The masa is then stuffed with chicken, pork, epazote, and other herbs and spices. Finally, it is steamed in banana leaves.
Tamales have long held a sacred cultural significance to Mexicans. For the Maya, corn is a symbol of life itself and plays a key role in daily life; tamales appear frequently in ancient Maya glyphs, and they may have symbolized the human body. In Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization, Ellen Riojas Clark and Carmen Tafolla write that specific tamales were made as offerings to specific deities—huitlacoche tamales, for example, appeased Tlaloc, the god of rain and thunder. Mesoamericans sometimes formed tamales in the shapes of animals and imprinted them with patterns using leaves and shells, as first noted in Dominican friar Diego Durán’s late-sixteenth-century text Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Joloches, a type of tamale native to the Yucatán Peninsula, traditionally signify life and the sun. They are filled with eggs and cooked in a black bean sauce, says Iliana de la Vega, chef and co-owner of El Naranjo in Austin.
Another example is the corunda, a triangular tamale that is a specialty of Michoacán state. De la Vega can’t resist tamales de frijol, black beans scented with avocado leaf and flavored with chile pasilla, or the tamal de cambray, filled with potatoes, carrots, chicharron, eggs, beef or chicken, and chiles. For de la Vega, tamales are personal, tied to tradition, and linked to memory. During Día de los Muertos and other holidays, her family in Mexico City looked forward to receiving packages from her Oaxacan grandmother and aunts. “The magical boxes were full of aromas,” she says. “We found cheeses, meats, mole, breads, chocolate, chiles, oregano, tortillas, and, of course, tamales!” The most famous tamale from Oaxaca is perhaps the tamal de mole negro. It’s wrapped in banana leaves and folded into a large rectangle. “The best part is what I call the ‘telita,’ which is a very fine layer of masa that is in the edges of the tamal,” de la Vega says. “It’s so fragrant and delicate.”
One of my favorites is the zacahuil, a giant baked tamale from the Huasteca region of Mexico (stretching across parts of San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Guanajuato states). The cooking method isn’t the only thing that distinguishes it from the common tamale, which is usually steamed. The zacahuil is typically prepared for large community celebrations and measures up to sixteen feet long. There isn’t a clear distinction between filling and masa either. Rather, the zacahuil is a mixture of mashed masa, lard, meats, spices, and chiles wrapped in a banana leaf and finished overnight, traditionally, in an earthen oven. The tamale is then separated into segments for individual consumption. The finished product has a rich, earthy aroma evoking the reviving scents of farm fields and yards. Inside is a textural playground of threads of meat and gritty corn. The dish radiates heat. It’s glorious, and available at restaurants and storefronts across Texas, such as Taqueria La Huasteca and Tienda Choris’s El Catrin restaurant, both in Dallas.
The aforementioned are but a scant sample of the variety of tamales. There are at least 350 types, according to the authoritative text on Mexican food, the Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana by scholar-chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. And there are rules surrounding their consumption in Mexico. “Tamales are served for almuerzo [late breakfast/lunch] or for merienda [midday snack]. Never for comida [lunch], unless they are recycled from a day earlier,” de la Vega explains. No such protocols exist in the states. Nevertheless, etiquette doesn’t mean there isn’t room for creativity.
Mexico City’s famed torta de tamal is a street-cart sandwich that packs a fluffy tamale between slices of crusty bolillo loaf or soft telera bun. It makes for a hearty worker’s breakfast. If anyone served it in Texas, I have yet to find it, though at least one operation tells me they’d love to offer it eventually. Mexico City native Francisco Estrada and his wife, Lizzeth Martinez, owners of the Naco Mexican Eatery trailer in San Antonio, are torta de tamal fans. But the delicate masa needed for the sandwich’s specific tamale, which can be filled with myriad ingredients including mole, poblanos, and pork, is hard to come by in the United States. “If we can find it, we’d try it,” Martinez says.
One of the most creative tamale preparations I’ve tried is at CC’s Sweets in McAllen. For Neighborhood Molino’s Sundays-only pop-up brunches there, chef-owner Andrés M. Garza prepares a gorgeous zacahuil Benedict. Served on a rectangular segment of banana leaf, the tamale, made with freshly nixtamalized masa, is a stunning pyramid of vermillion-hued pork speckled with grains of corn masa and topped with thin medallions of carrot and radish, twirled rings of white onion, splotches of salsa verde, squiggles of cream, and a luscious poached egg. For Garza, the dish is deeply personal. “My mom grew up eating [zacahuil] and would tell me stories about it. The last time I went to Mexico, one of my uncles was telling me about how important it was,” Garza says. Serving zacahuil today “feels like I’m bridging this connection with my family,” they note.
About five hundred miles north, in Duncanville, the Tamale Company Bodega storefront offers more traditional options, including lard-free tamales. (It’s only during the colonial era that lard, European pork fat, was introduced into tamales.) Founded as a catering operation by Elizabeth Plimmer-Fernandez; her husband, Israel Fernandez; and her father, Richard Plimmer, the Tamale Company quickly became a favorite at local events, markets, and breweries. The business opened a brick-and-mortar location in July 2020. At the store, customers can pick up the best-selling pork and chicken tamales or Plimmer-Fernandez’s favorite black bean, corn, and green-chile vegan tamale alongside grab-and-go meals and salsa and provisions from Texas purveyors.
Like many purveyors and restaurants, the Tamale Company is keeping the tradition of making tamales alive. Despite the dish’s popularity, its preparation is a dying art, largely because tamales are laborious to prepare. Their production is a multi-person operation that can take all day to finish. Fewer Mexican American families make tamales at home these days, instead buying them at the store—a shift that Plimmer-Fernandez sums up as “Grandma is dying and we’re buying.”
Texans and Mexican Americans tend to reserve making tamales for the holiday season, specifically Christmas. The occasion is called a tamalada, a party during which families gather and divide up tasks in an assembly-line fashion: at least one person might make the meat filling, while another combines it with the masa, a third assembles it all, and a fourth steams the wrapped tamale.
Thankfully, even if you aren’t ready to host a tamalada, you can likely find good tamales somewhere near you—whether from a neighborhood tamales lady (Texans covet these hookups to an impressive extent and often recommend them to family and friends), a restaurant, or a local store. The enduring appeal of tamales is not just about their taste. “I think it’s the most nostalgic food, and I think that people really like it as a comfort food,” Plimmer-Fernandez says. “People want comfort food all year round.” Indeed, any Texan or Tejano who doesn’t find comfort in tamales might want to turn in his or her boots.
Where to Find Great Tamales in Texas
Delia’s Specializing in Tamales
Multiple locations in the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio.
835 W. Jefferson Boulevard, Dallas
Hours: Monday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Taqueria La Huasteca
723 S. Beacon, Dallas
Hours: Monday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.