For the uninitiated, tamales are cornmeal dough stuffed with a variety of fillings that's then wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. In the case of El Chico Bakery’s tamales, which are available only on the weekends, they’re always pork, they’re always offered one of two ways – with either green or red chile sauce – and they always sell out. That’s why on any given Friday night, normally right around 7pm, you’ll find Leticia Rivera working away in the back of her Cherokee Street shop.
Her kitchen, while clean and organized, is old – no, seasoned. A giant oven in the corner – it’s literally the size of a small college dorm room – watches over Rivera as she works, the words “Middleby-Marshall Est. 1888” emblazoned across its white metallic chest. An industrial mixer, proofing racks, kitchen appliances and an army-green desk with a phone that doesn’t seem to stop ringing all surround a large worktable in the center of the room. It’s here, amidst the real-world imperfections and bad fluorescent lighting, that Rivera does her work.
On TV, you’ll see cooks using fancy, high-tech equipment to construct their culinary creations. Rivera uses a camping stove. She sets it up in the back corner of her kitchen, propane tank at its side, and cooks the pork in a thick, giant pot. While the pork is stewing with onions and garlic, she begins work on her chile sauces – using tomatillos and jalapeños for the green chile sauce and anchos for the red chile sauce. Each chile gets water, garlic and salt added to it before it’s boiled and puréed. That’s it. When I ask Rivera for proportions, she can’t tell me. Rather, her daughter, Ana, who is translating for Rivera, says she can’t tell me because she doesn’t know. “She says she just adds everything until it looks right.”
In fact, Rivera doesn’t even know the name – in English or in Spanish – for the cut of pork she uses. “She just goes to the butcher and points at what she wants,” explains Ana. It’s only after taking a closer look and asking a few more questions that the mystery is solved. Rivera uses pork shoulder, more fondly known in St. Louis as pork butt.
Once the pork is fork-tender (after roughly three hours of cooking), Rivera removes it from the heat and sets it aside to cool. Separating the pork from the stock, Rivera shreds the meat by hand. With the stock she begins to make the masa, or cornmeal dough, combining the liquid with cornmeal flour, salt, vegetable shortening and baking powder. The woman standing before me, elbow-deep in masa, is a model example of oratorical feast or famine. When she does speak, it’s in staccato bursts – rapid-fire instructions to Ana telling me about the significance of the masa.
“It’s the most important part of the tamales,” Ana translates for her mom. “You need to add the stock to impart the flavor throughout, and it’s best to mix it all by hand.”
After approximately 40 minutes of kneading by hand, the dough's consistency is similar to that of thick oatmeal. When she’s satisfied, Rivera brings all the components, along with cornhusks she’s soaked overnight in cool water, back to the metal island in the middle of her kitchen. There she constructs the tamales at blinding speed, using a small serving spoon to spread the masa in the center of the husk, followed by a handful of the pork and then finishing with a smear of red or green chile sauce. After folding the husk in half over the tamale, Rivera rolls the excess husk tightly around the sides and continues on to the next one.
Once all the tamales are finished, Rivera stands them up in steamer pots and stores them in the walk-in refrigerator. In the morning she’ll come in and steam the tamales on her trusty camp stove for about an hour. Because Rivera makes the tamales completely by herself, she sets a limit. Approximately nine dozen tamales are made by her hands every week. She doesn’t take orders; however, she does accept customers asking to have some set aside for them. That’s why the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since I’ve been here – customers are calling dibs on the tamales before they’re even made.
Walking into El Chico Bakery, I hoped to learn the secrets behind how Leticia Rivera makes her amazing tamales. It turns out she doesn’t even know. Because Rivera doesn’t always prepare the same number of tamales at a time – some Fridays she’ll make the entire weekend’s worth; other times she’ll split the load over two days – she relies on her senses, dealing not in cups and tablespoons but rather “bits of this” and “just enoughs” of that.
In fact, I have a feeling she’s a bit mystified as to why I’m sitting here in her beautifully ordinary and weathered kitchen to learn how to do what she believes is commonsense cooking. While it’s possible to glean from her ingredients list and make a facsimile of her tamales at home, I urge you to go for yourself on a Saturday or Sunday morning to try something that truly can’t be copied. Just make sure to get there early because on any given Friday night, normally right around 7pm, Rivera is quietly making tamales by hand to the seemingly endless accompaniment of a ringing telephone.
El Chico Bakery, 2634 Cherokee Street, 314.664.2212, facebook.com/ElChicoBakery