When real-deal Mexican food lurks right under our nose
I love Mexico—its cities are among my favorite places in the world to visit and the food is one of the big draws, so over the years my wife, Sarah, and I have elaborated some home approximations. I can whip up a mean tostada—I eat them a few times a week and would live on them exclusively if it were up to me—but one thing I haven’t yet perfected is the tamale. I have the galvanized tin bucket, I have the dried corn husks, I have the masa meal in its green and yellow Maseca sack—I have the desire and the will—but somehow after the hours spent mixing and kneading and rolling and steaming, the tamales tend to turn out small and dry. I’ll keep making them, but recently it’s gotten easier to get a fix of one of my favorite foods by simply walking across the street to the North Sea General Store (1360 North Sea Road, Southampton), where for the last three years Modesta Reyes has been making tamales in the kitchen.
Modesta, a native of Puebla, one of Mexico’s food capitals and home to some of its most famous dishes, including mole poblano, makes the kind of tamale you seldom find north of the border. Large, moist and full of flavor, these tamales are a reminder of the distinctive elegance of the real cuisine of Mexico.
Elizabeth DeJesus, also from Puebla, left the North Sea General Store last summer to start her own business, DeJesus Deli Grocery (376 County Road 39, near P.C. Richards, Southampton). Her kitchen produces 70 tamales a day, 300 on weekends, that come in four varieties: green chili, red chili, mole and rajas. I like green chili better than red in general, but whatever your preference, both of DeJesus’s varieties come with enough sauce to keep the corn dough from being pasty or bland. They’re also both loaded with shredded chicken that is tender and moist. The mole is DeJesus’s version of the Pueblan speciality, a rich, delicious brown sauce made with chilies and dark chocolate and a complicated blend of spices that seeps into the chicken and the dough.
As wonderful as these are, my favorite is the rajas—Spanish for peppers. This is a kind of tamale I’d never had, and I was somewhat skeptical when I unwrapped my first one. Green and red peppers, onions, jalapeños: it looked like it might be on the slimy side. But what I found was an incredible array of flavors and a potent spiciness—the real deal—combined with surprising cubes of mozzarella. The mozzarella is the ticket, an unexpected ingredient that makes this tamale pure Mexico and pure New York at the same time.
Zachary Lazar lives, writes and eats in North Sea. His last two books were Sway and Evening’s Empire.