Though you might not know it, tamale sleuths abound in Chicago. The devoted bunch tracks down the most memorable packet of masa dough they can get. These bundles of flavor date back to ancient times (5000 BC, to be exact), when they were hand-slapped with fillers like tadpole, ox, gopher and bees. Today tamales come snugly steamed in a compact shell with pork, chicken or chile and cheese. Everyone thinks they know the choicest place to get the goods, but we've tried them all and know a fine tamale when we taste one.
Tamales You Wish You Knew How to Make: That Little Mexican Cafe (Edgewater)
Though the restaurant has a gentrified feel, its steadfast kitchen busts out some tamale winners. Ordered either as an appetizer or a full dinner, the thick vegetarian tamales come doused in a tart green sauce and a sweet red mole. After your first bite of the red, you'll shoot a look that'll make the chef swell with pride: an outright deer-caught-in-the-headlights gaze full of pure happiness. Coupled with a stout blended daiquiri and a basket or two of chips and salsa, these yuppy tamales will surprise you with how much joy they bring to your lips.
Tamales That'll Haunt your Dreams: La Unica
In the back of this unassuming grocery store lies a spacious cafe doling out the ace-in-the-hole tamale of the century. Though it offers several varieties, its Cuban pork tamale shows up most frequently in our dreams. Served sans husk and doused in a warm, winey sauce, its complexity is utterly astounding. The corn masa feels firm to the touch; the tiny smidgen of pork in the middle is buttery tender; and it costs just a dollar or so. Best of all, the store sell batches of them out of a cooler in the back.
Tamales to Feed a Crowd: Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero
You'll have to get up at the crack of dawn to score your tamale of choice at this regional tamale hut; once they're gone, man, they are gone! Plastic bags full of meat, cheese, bean and dessert tamales rapidly exit this order-at-the-counter cafe, which, according to sworn tamale lovers, sells the best in the city. It owns a small cart perched a few blocks south that also unloads tamales and traditional Mexican non-alcoholic drinks to loyal customers and curious passersby.
Tamales to Enjoy While You BYO: Taste of Peru
Moist, slightly spicy and delicious when washed down with a frosty cerveza, the tamales at this strip-mall Peruvian joint come swollen with chicken and topped with sliver-thin, marinated sweet onions. The soft corn and crunchy onion contrast is to die for, and even though Check, Please! did a piece raving about the food here, you can still land a seat almost any night of the week. The weekends showcase live indigenous music, and BYOB rules apply. Expect a $5 charge if you bring booze.
Tamales to Scarf Down on the Run: Tamales Garibaldi
This street cart, which sits at the corner of Lunt and North Clark Street, hawks nothing but bright red, itty-bitty tamales out of a gigantic silver pot. You'll spot a friendly crowd waving grungy dollar bills at the lone man running the busy set up; regulars come for a sack of the slightly greasy, deliciously spicy meat and cheese tamales. If you don't show up early, consider yourself lucky to get whatever remains in the pot. Spending just 75-cents per tamale, you've got a cheap and satisfying meal in your hands.