“Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
Me and my babe bought a V-8 Ford
Well we wind that thing all on the runnin’ board, yes
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale, I mean
Yes she got ’em for sale, yeah.”
— Robert Johnson, “They’re Red Hot,” 1937
Like the Cornwall pasty or the Jiaozi dumpling, the tamale’s composition follows its primary purpose: utility. Tamalii, in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, means “wrapped food,” and thanks to some creative cooks in pre-Columbian history, tamales were invented for soldiers as a substitute for decidedly nonportable foods like stews and chilis. Tamales could be made in mass quantities before an expedition, the large yield serving as justification for the labor-intensive process of nixtamalizing, or breaking down corn and maize into a dough such that it’s malleable and cohesive enough to be flattened into staples like tortillas. Even if you start out as we do now, with treated corn, making tamales can take days, which is why nobody ever makes just a few tamales at a time, or for a weeknight dinner. It’s probably also why we’re so willing to buy someone else’s tamales at a substantial markup, unless there’s a spacious kitchen and a holiday weekend to kill. It’s precisely those qualities that make tamales the quintessential road food, and why you should allot an empty corner of the ice chest for stashing a dozen of the Delta variety that’s prevalent here in Arkansas.
1005 Little Rock Road
Were it not for the linguistic similarities between Italian and Spanish — elongated vowels, roots in ancient Latin — Pietro Santo Columbia, a Sicilian immigrant to Helena in 1892, might not have slipped so easily into friendships with the farm workers who emigrated from Mexico to the same area. Discovering that there was a demand for portable food to take into the fields and that the immigrants missed the tamales they’d come to associate with home and the holidays, Columbia learned the recipe. (Only a year later, as Kathryn Schulz notes in a New Yorker article about tamale vendor Zarif Khan, tamales were the “hit of the 1893 World’s Fair” in Chicago.) Nearly 100 years later, in 1987, Pietro’s grandson Joe revived the family tamale business and named it after his father, Pasquale. Just west of the Mississippi River, Pasquale’s serves as an unofficial mile marker for those passing between Arkansas and Mississippi by way of the Delta, a precursor to the river bridge itself and a destination-worthy concession stand that predated the food truck craze in Arkansas by more than a decade. Pasquale’s tamales are made biweekly in batches of 200 dozen, and are filled with a blend of chuck roast and top sirloin. Unlike his grandfather, who hand-rolled the tamales, Joe and Joyce St. Columbia use an extruder to form the yellow cornmeal tubes, a machine that rolls out coils of tamales like a sausage grinder attachment. They’re then hand-rolled in dried corn husks from Mexico — a tradition that Joe told former Southern Foodways Alliance writer Amy C. Evans he felt was important to keep — and simmered in a spiced broth for at least six hours, which is probably what earned the business its slogan: “So good you’ll suck the shuck.”
Doe’s Eat Place
1023 W. Markham St.
Though Pasquale’s may claim closer proximity to that wellspring of tamale authenticity, the Mississippi Delta, Doe’s connection to its Mississippi roots is one of direct lineage. The weathered landmark tucked away on Markham Street just down from the Union Train Station is the offshoot of an original location in Greenville, Miss. Founded by Dominick “Doe” Signa in 1941 in the former location of his father’s grocery store, the establishment is still run by Signa’s sons and still uses the recipe of Doe Signa’s wife, Mamie. George Eldridge owns the Doe’s incarnation in Little Rock, where tamale tradition is either thrown to the wind or reinvented altogether: cornhusks and pork are nowhere to be found. Doe’s thin tamale fingers arrive in wax paper that’s coated, in turn, with a sheen of oil rendered orange by the pepper and chili powder in which they’ve been simmered. As if echoing Doe’s reputation as a steak place, Doe’s tamales have a generously spicy all-beef center, the white cornmeal serving as a firm, dense vehicle for the finely ground meat at the heart of each tube, a statement that’s bolstered by the addition of a generous bowl of Doe’s beef (and bean, but barely) chili alongside.
The Tamale Factory
19571 State Hwy. 33
Gregory (Woodruff County)
When Uncle Sam cracked down on George Eldridge’s practice of hauling tamales to the Little Rock Doe’s directly from Greenville, he took matters of masa into his own hands. The tamales served at Doe’s in Little Rock now come by way of The Tamale Factory, a large white barn on state Hwy. 33 in Gregory that Eldridge transitioned from its former use as a quarter horse stable to a restaurant in November 2012. The menu there mimics Doe’s offerings, and boasts a banquet hall and full bar to boot.
Heights Taco & Tamale Co.
5805 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Easily the poshest of tamale eateries on this list and definitely the newest, Heights Taco & Tamale has traded out the brown-and-beige “Tex-Mex Bar & Grill” decor of its predecessor, Browning’s, for the sort of Southern chic environs we’ve come to expect from restaurants owned by Yellow Rocket Concepts: intricate mosaic-tiled flooring, white tin ceilings, light bulbs hung from the same kind of cord with which you’d fashion a campsite clothesline, turquoise leather barstools and the kind of oversized marquee that those of us from small towns are accustomed to seeing in front of the volunteer fire department, alerting us to the “PANCAKE SUPPER ON SATURDAY.” Pinterest “outdoor wedding” vibe notwithstanding, Heights Taco & Tamale Co. sequesters that compound-butter-and-frozen-mojito aesthetic from the tamale portion of the menu: the tamales are kept pure and simple, served in a light tomato broth with Saltine crackers (for scooping or maybe just for respite), wrapped in paper that resembles corn husks but (lest you care) is too uniformly patterned to be the genuine article. Inside, in an act of defiance of eaters who cry “too much masa!” when confronted with tamales that are more direct reflections of their Latin American ancestry, the strict cannoli structure is abandoned in the name of flavor and heft, each an irregularly shaped pocket of masa-meat swirl.
Kara’s Packing Co.
23049 State Hwy. 5
For those willing to sacrifice an extra half-hour on the way to Hot Springs by way of scenic state Hwy. 5, a.k.a. “the Old Hot Springs highway,” there’s a roadside jewel in Owensville (don’t be fooled by the Lonsdale mailing address) between Crows Station and Lake Balboa, a white cinder block building with a marquee that reads “Spicy Polish Sausage” or “Kara’s One-Stop, Shop ‘Til You Drop!” Kara’s Packing Co. is 47 years old this year and open seven days a week. The one-room father-and-daughter storefront is lined on one wall by shelves stacked high with a panoply of jars of jams, jellies and pickled goods: polish sausage, okra, pepper jelly, red link sausages, tomato relish, hot sauce, dried spice rubs and pickled eggs. The other two walls are lined with deep freezes packed neatly with all manner of steaks, sausages, bratwursts, boudin and some beloved frozen tamales. Though Chicago transplants John Kara, 86, or his daughter, “Miss Kitty,” can heat one up for you right there in the microwave while you peruse the faded photos on the walls, these tamales are best served intermittently from your freezer at home, on a night when a hearty hunk of greasy cornmeal filled with meat will count as dinner. Kara’s offers two styles of tamales: a steamed “Chicago style” white cornmeal version available with beef, chicken, or chipotle chicken, and a substantially more decadent version from Texas filled with pork and, notably, textured vegetable protein.
Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales and Pies
714 St. Mary’s St.
If there’s a trinity of places in Arkansas that perfectly demonstrate an inverse proportion between the opulence of the building and the quality of the food inside, I’d name the following establishments: Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna, the Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff (rest in peace, Miss Mary Thomas) and Rhoda’s Tamales in Lake Village. In a video for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, Rhoda Adams introduces herself by saying, “My name is Rhoda. I been doing this over 39 years, that’s what they tell me.” In the beginning, Adams made and sold pies to benefit her local church, crediting God for giving her the expertise to craft the kind of pies people lined up for: “I didn’t know how to do that stuff until I obeyed Him … My auntie got me started on the hot tamales, and the Lord got me started on the pies.” And, while her “half-and-half” pies (coconut alongside chocolate, sweet potato alongside pecan) pies keep the oven at her storefront occupied, it’s the tamales that get top billing on the sign, and for good reason. When Rhoda was still making the tamales by hand rather than with a tamale machine, as she does now, she could make about 24 dozen a day, which would be gone within about an hour of putting them out for sale. Now, they’re available frozen, but unless you’ve got a tamale simmering method you’re especially proud of, the best way to enjoy them is right on the spot — served by the dozen in a coffee can, if you’ve got someone to share with. They’re a contradiction in terms, structurally; so juicy that it’s hard to believe they keep their shape at all, likely because of the chicken fat Rhoda mixes with the beef filling.