Maria Isabel Mendez is the owner of Isabel's Tamales and has been serving her signature snack at the Crescent City Farmer's Market (www.crescent- cityfarmersmarket.org) for 15 years. Mendez spoke to Gambit about tamales and the one Mexican dish American restaurants have yet to get right.
How long have you been making and selling tamales?
Mendez: I've been at the [Crescent City Farmers Market] for 15 years selling tamales. [I] now [go to] three markets throughout the week — Saturday, Wednesday and Tuesday — and I make many different kinds of tamales, like pork and bean. My favorite is jalapeno — the spicy one.
How did you learn to make tamales?
M: I learned from my mom. I didn't start learning when I was young and still living in Guanajuato, Mexico, mostly because I was only supposed to be someone who was doing side work in the kitchen. When I moved to the United States, then some people started saying to me, "Do you make tamales?" We had a friend who used to sell wine [at the market] and he said to me, "Isabel, you should come to the market and sell tamales, because a lot of people ask for tamales at the market." I told him, "I never learned how to make tamales. How am I going to do it?" So, I called my mama and asked for the recipe she used. I did it, and people are still liking it today. Now, when I don't come, the next week they say, "Isabel, we missed your tamales." More and more people are interested in them.
Outside of tamales, is there a Mexican dish that you'd like to see more people enjoy?
M: My favorite dish is enchiladas. There aren't any good ones here if you're eating out, so I prefer making my own. When I make enchiladas at home, I make them with ground meat and cook the tortillas in red pepper sauce. I also make my own tortillas — I don't like the ones from the store. Some restaurants try to make them, and they're fine, but nothing yet I've tried [is] like homemade.