Isabel's Gift: In Search of a Great Tamale

GARDEN CITY, Idaho (KBOI) - Every morning at 9, including weekends, Modesto Arichega and his wife Isabel open the El Torito Market on Chinden Boulevard.

It's a modest grocery that suggests the mid-20th century, back when mom-and-pop stores were the rule in most cities and the big supermarket chains had yet to start calling the shots.

When the phone rings, as it does often, it's Modesto first to answer because he's up front handling customers while Isabel is busy in the kitchen.

Operating their business together is a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor.

"They never take a weekend off, " says eldest daughter Laura Gomez in admiration.

Gomez often helped out after school, and still does, a tradition that extends to her siblings, and now even to her own son.

"We're here all the time," she explains, "and we've had the store for about 10 years, so, yeah, it's like a second home."

There's a reason to visit El Torito, apart from the impressive array of Mexican foodstuffs and spices. It's the tamales, Isabel's specialty.

And the timing right now is perfect because tamales are a holiday treat in the Hispanic culture and, to Isabel's relief, the mayhem is over.

Gomez winces at the memory of the past few weeks.

"Holiday seasons are crazy because we're making tamales all the time. People order a dozenmaybe 2, 3 or 4 dozen."

For the uninitiated, tamales are a dense surprise of savory ingredients wrapped in corn husks and tied with a corn husk bow.

Their simple appearance, though, belies the work that goes into making each one.

Isabel starts with masa, ground corn flour. Then she adds baking powder, a generous amount of lard and a half-gallon or so of meat stock.

In the beginning, it's a gloppy mess.

And then, up to her elbows, Isabel begins kneading the ingredients into a generous helping of dough.

You won't find a fancy industrial mixer in Isabel's kitchen. It's just Isabel, turning the heavy dough over and over by hand.

As Gomez watches her mother, she explains, "Every place you go to makes 'em differently. The only thing we have in common are the husk and the masa."

Once the dough is ready, Isabel grabs the filling that's been heating on a cook stove in their food truck, right outside the kitchen door.

Every good cook has secrets, so surely Isabel has revealed a few to her daughter over the years. Not a chance.

"Even when I ask, how do I make this, she'll say 'Add this and this and that,' but that's it, so that's how we learn to cook."

Isabel learned to make tamales at 12, so by now she can simply eye the proper amount of everything, from salt to sauce.

"She doesn't measure anything out. A pinch of this, a dash of that," says Gomez.

Once the dough is ready, and Isabel has retrieved the chicken sauce bubbling away in the truck, the real magic begins.

She grabs a handful of dough and rolls it into a ball, and then mashes it onto a piece of corn husk about the size of a small dinner napkin.

She spreads out the dough and then adds a few pieces of fresh green pepper, tomato, onion and potato.

Then it's time to add a dollop of sauce, a pungent gravy of chicken, chilies and it's anybody's guess what assortment of spices.

She carefully folds the ingredients and then ties the ends with a strip of husk.

A neat trick that ends in a neat little package.

Elapsed time: about 90 seconds.

Once she has prepared her allotment for the day, Isabel places the tamales in a stainless steamer, covers it with foil and carries it into the food truck where it will hiss and sputter for about an hour.

Given the labor involved, Gomez says tamale-making is often a family affair, even at home. Busy hands can make quick work of tamale-tying when the goal is several dozen.

"Basically it's an excuse to get together with family," she says," and just share quality time."

And, winking as she admits it, a little gossip.

Since making tamales is so laborious, you might wonder why Isabel doesn't just save herself some grief and buy frozen?

Isabel seems horrified when asked by Gomez, who's translating.

But the emphatic "no" needs no translation.

"There's something personal," explains Gomez. "It's her name out there. If she buys them from a big chain, they're not hers."

You can find everything you need at El Torito to make your own tamales, but why would you?

Better to grab a few of Isabel's.

Hot out of the steamer, they explode on the tongue in a savory burst of corn and hot spices.

It's no wonder Isabel sells so many at the holidays.

They're her gift.

To all but Modesto. He's an enchilada man.