The Street Food Queens: Lupita & Clemencia Alonso
When people think of Mexico, they think of tamales. The tamal - its proper singular name- is perhaps the most emblematic food in a culture full of emblematic dishes. All over the country, morning and night, vendors set up their stands to sell these steaming delicacies to passersby hungry for a hearty breakfast, a quick supper, or in-between snack. A tamal, with the sweetened hot corn drink atole, is a traditional breakfast for many Mexicans. Who hasn’t heard that odd pre-recorded drone - “tamales Oaxaqueñooooos…” from carts rumbling through the city streets at night? From market stalls to fancy restaurants, tamales are found all over Mexico, and the rest of Latin America as well, as they have been for centuries.
The name comes from "tamalli", náhuatl for “carefully wrapped thing". Tamales vary from region to region, often with different names. The basic tamal is ground corn wrapped in a husk - usually corn but also banana leaf which makes a smoother, denser texture - and then steamed. The masa (corn dough) is mixed with lard, and typically contains a small amount of filling: chicken or pork with red sauce, green sauce, or mole, and strips of chile poblano with cheese are the most common. The filling is really only a flavoring—the main event is the corn itself. Tamales are usually eaten in the morning or at night. In residential neighborhoods, market areas, outside metro stations, and around town plazas, tamal vendors tend shiny steel containers with steam escaping from the edges. Because tamales cook for a long time and are sold hot, they are a dependably hygienic street food.
I’m always on the lookout for great tamales. So I was lead right out of the city rumbo a Toluca, where the gold standard of tamales was to be found. It was Ada’s dad, 90-year-old Alexander Pastrana, born and bred in Mexico City, who said it: “these are the best tamales in the world.” I don’t have the right to decree such hyperboles but a nonagenarian does. Sr. Pastrana claims that the tamales made by one Clemencia Alonso taste like those he remembers eating as a boy. So I had to find out what he was talking about.
Clemencia and Lupita Alonso are a pair of sisters of a certain age who for the past 25 years have set up their food tables on the highway road from D.F. to Chalma, in the State of Mexico, an hour west of the city. The town is called Texcalyacac and in case that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps San Pedro Techuchulco or Santiango Tiangistenco, between which it is sandwiched, won’t either. Not important, as the mayors of these dots on the map don’t see any point in hanging signs welcoming the visitors to their humble hamlets anyway. What is important is that, just past the Pemex, the two sisters, who don’t seem to exhibit a great fondness for one another, turn out magnificent antojitos. Lupita does quesadillas, sopes and, on Tuesdays, enchiladas. And Clemencia offers those superb tamales every day. Masa is prepared in-house of local yellow corn and that's what raises this food from quotidian to the sublime.
The rustic, earthy aroma, toothsome texture - it's a veritable corn high. Lupita’s pizzetta-like sopes are textbook perfect. Mustard yellow, edges crisp, interior soft, a shmeer of black beans brightened by a snowy layer of fresh white cheese then drizzled with spiky red guajillo salsa. Clemencia’s light but substantial tamales come green, red, of mole or dulce – sweetened with piloncillo. They are neither dense nor fluffy, leaden nor airy, but have that je-ne-sais-quoi perfect bite like a well made Julia Child chocolate cake. The ladies aren’t stingy with the chilies either and the salsas bite back. Mole is just sweet enough but not cloying.
No greater accolades can be written for these marvelous cocineras tradicionales, who have indeed been nominated for an award at chowzter.com’s upcoming Tastiest Fast Feasts on Earth Awards Latin America 2014. The winners will be announced in Lima, Peru on September 5th. Stay tuned.
Note: A special thanks to Adamarie King of www.connoisseurstravel.com & Lynn Wallach for turning me on to these wonderful ladies
Las Hermanas Alonso
The Alonso sisters are located under a sign that inexplicably says "Cosina (sic) familiar Huerta", on the main street of Texcacyacac, near the Pemex station. It is on the road to Malinalco/Chalma. Exiting the city towards Toluca, take the exit after the tolls that says "La Marquesa/Malinalco" and keep going. On a good day it's about 1 hour 15 minutes from central Mexico City.
Conde Sandwich, at the corner of Alvaro Obregón and Córdoba in the Roma, is a cute American style nuevo sandwich shop run by the owners of the adorable nearby Fournier Rousseau. The Rueben, done with house-made corned beef and sauerkraut vales la pena of which there is little.
Guzina Oaxaca, at Mazaryk 513 (tel. 5282 1820) in Polanco is chef Alejandro Ruiz' venue for great Oaxacan cooking. It's worth a visit.
Casa Virginia is chef Mónica Patiño's latest venture, located above Delirio at the corner of Alvaro Obregón & Monterrey, the Porfiriana house is beautifully restored and home-style food is delicious Tel. 5207 1813
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