This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Masa of his domain. Photo by Matt Otto

"What's a Chicago-style tamale?" I asked the nice gent who manned Chicago's Best, a counter in an Irvine food court.

"It's a . . . tamale," he stammered.

"Yeah, but what is it?"

"It's different from a Mexican tamale."

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"Umm . . . it's just different. I don't know how to describe them, but I've eaten them my entire life."

"You from Chicago?"

[ . . . ]

It was almost closing time. Maybe the guy'd had a long day, but his Chicago tamale pitch was the worst food description I'd heard since a Salvadoran tried to explain fried yucca to a clueless Chinese. But the promise of a Chicago tamale was simply too intriguing. I ordered one (and a Chicago dog) and sat in the food court's communal eating area.

The food arrived just minutes later. The Chicago dog was gospel—a Vienna Beef wiener inside a soft poppy seed bun, sweet relish greener than Éire, finely chopped onions, mustard, two tomato slices, a long pickle and two chiles somewhere between pepperoncini and jalapeño on the Geiger scale. A side of hand-cut fries came as an unannounced (and free) surprise, brown and golden. I made a mental note to return for the Italian roast beef sandwich.

But the Chicago-style tamale gave my life new meaning.

Discovering regional variations on the same basic dish is one of the joys of roadside dining, but how could the Windy City possibly expand on a meal that predates Christianity? I was further confounded when the Chicago tamale finally arrived wrapped not in a corn husk or banana leaf but cellophane. Cellophane! But the masa was fluffier than usual, and sweet. Sugary chile filled the tamale from end to end. Cheap, easy to smack out, and affordable—I liked it.

Closing time. Remembering that activists in Chicago started the pro-amnesty marches that gripped America all spring, I thanked the Windy City again for its contributions to the American melting pot by ordering another of its tamales. Not bad at all—you could sneak one into a Mexican household come Christmastime and no one would complain.

CHICAGO'S BEST, 2540 MAIN ST., IRVINE, (949) 757-1802.

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