By Stanley N. Kanzaki
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Jan. 5, 2012.)
Once again the successful Rafu Holiday Issue (Dec. 8, 2011) had many interesting articles. The one that caught my eye was one by Mario G. Reyes, the main man behind the Rafu camera and the Mexican tamale.
He even had a nice photo of hisself. However, instead of hand holding up his face it would perhaps have been more appropriate with tamale or two in hand. After all, the article focused on that subject.
And I must admit reading his article made me hungry. It was tamale addiction time. But yo, Mario, give us a break. I couldn’t follow your recipe. You called for 60-75 servings of tamales. As much as I love that stuff I can’t handle all that mucho. And what is this here masa anyhoo? It sounds like a Japanese boy’s given name.
So by now you readers and Mario too must be wondering about my above title. It’s just like it says. Let me explain all this here in the next paragraphs. You will then understand and it may bring you tamale tears or two.
It all began with me as a little boy living in San Francisco’s Japantown. Every once in a while my dad would bring home a bag of hot, steaming tamales, which I loved. I asked him where he got it. He told me he bought it from an Issei man who owned a small store in Nihonmachi.
From there I became a tamale snob and thought that tamale and onigiri covered with nori and umeboshi inside were the best in Japanese gochiso. Hey, don’t laugh. As I said, I was then a little boy.
But all this came to a sudden halt with FDR’s infamous EO 9066. There was no tamale in Topaz. Suffered through some withdrawal symptoms but I survived the desert. After over three years we were released to New York.
There, at times, I was unwillingly volunteered to accompany my mom for supermarket shopping. But pushing the shopping cart one day I made a great discovery. There it was — canned tamales. My addiction came back. I convinced my mom to buy us a few cans. It wasn’t too bad as far as canned goods went, for it satisfied my addiction.
Then another era came to my life. At times I made trips to Los Angeles to attend conferences, conventions, reunions, etc. Walking along — to the best of what I recomember — East Second Street in Little Tokyo, I spotted a wooden shack with a sign that read “Comidas Mexicanas” and saw big time “TAMALES” on the menu. I immediately got in line.
When I reached the counter, I was surprised to see two Japanese women in charge. After the purchase and heading for the Miyako Hotel, I began to think — like when I was a little boy — if the tamale was in fact Japanese. It was déjà vu all over again.
Going up the hotel elevator with me was a Japanese chambermaid. She asked me about the delicious smell coming out of my take-out brown bag. I told her and where to get it. Next morning I saw her again and she told me how much she enjoyed it. Then she wondered what part of Japan the two women at the take-out place came from. She was somewhat disappointed when I told her the delicious Japanese “tamaree” was Mexican, but her appetite for it wasn’t diminished.
On my next trip to L.A., I went straight to the shack but it was gone. Que pasa? I asked someone and was told it closed over a year ago. Sadly, I began walking around aimlessly on San Pedro Street, which had many Mexican mom-and-pop stores. Then I spotted a small Mexican restaurant.
I looked in and saw a Mexican couple open the familiar tamale corn husks with steam coming out. I got excited. But inside was kind of a dirty place. What the heck, I reasoned, for the tamale was steamed and served on a paper plate. I ordered two tamales and the senorita waitress stated, “You must like tamales.” What an understatement. If only she knew.
Just before finishing, I asked the waitress if the woman outside selling fruits had mangos. The next thing I knew she came in with the woman and told me it was her sister and she was holding a large mango. Then it was show time. She stuck a fork on the top of the mango and turned it upside down. Then, taking out a knife, she began peeling it downward in perfect strands until it all hung down. She twirled it around with the peelings flapping.
From there she cut the mango in bite-size pieces until there was only the large, cleaned-out, white, flat seed left. And for all this, to my surprise, she only charged me a dollar. So I gave her two dollars. Yeah, yeah, I know, the big spender from the East. Ah yes, that there was a meal and a half.
What could be a better lunch then to have tamales, show-time sweet mango and a double Mexican espresso café? Due to the business of the conference I was unfortunately unable to go back to that tamale place.
But back again to that wooden shack place. Back in New York I was having beer with a Hawaiian friend. Somehow we got into the subject of tamales. I told him about the sad tamale tale and the wooden shack in La La Land’s Little Tokyo. He began laughing and told me that it was his aunt’s place. She closed it up and now retired back in Hawaii.
Aloooohaaa!!! How nice of her. And I thought: What a most interesting combination — comidas mexicanas by Japanese American ladies all back home now in their state of Hawaii. Well, it was delicious no matter what the combo.
Then another trip to L.A. I headed straight for San Pedro Street. It was disbelief. NO! That dirty place was shuttered. Not even the show-time senorita fruit peddler on the scene. Que pasa? Were they ilegales? Did the immigration agents arrest them and close that dirty place?
Even if it was and if they were, I’m sure they were hard-working, tax-paying folks. In anger, I thought, why didn’t those lousy agents first arrest the criminal ilegales element? Ah, such is the unfairness of life.
Back in New York I worked for the NYC Human Resources Administration as a consultant. This job required me to travel and visit various organizations funded by NYC in all the five boroughs. One day walking along on a main drag on Brooklyn’s Montague Street, I came to a quick stop when I saw a Mexican restaurant. It was on a lower level. I checked the menu. Yes, tamales. It was a nice place run by a Mexican family.
Every time I went to Brooklyn, that was a must-stop-off place. Then one day, you guessed it, the place was shuttered. Que pasa? Was it again possibly the lousy immigration authorities? Woe is me.
Anyway, I consoled myself to going back to canned tamales. I went to four or five different supermarkets but no canned tamales. I began to wonder if all this was a conspiracy against me by some sinister anti-tamale terrorista underground. Was there no hope?
There were short-lived ones. I noticed a chain of Chipotle Mexican Grill and checked the menu, but no tamales. Then one day, walking down in the East Village section, I spotted a Mexican restaurant. I was suspicious. They didn’t look Mexican. And besides, their tamales didn’t taste like it either. It was like buying frozen tamales from a place like Trader Joe’s and cooking it at home. But this time it was a joy to later know that the faux joint went out of business.
Was there no hope? Is this the end? Then I thought maybe, just maybe, there’s one more hope for as the saying goeth, “Things that go around come around.” And so I shouteth: “HEY, MARIO! Por favor. Cual es el mejor sitio en Los Angeles para conseguir los mejores tamales? Muchos gracias. Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.
Stanley Kanzaki writes from New York. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.