The Mexican tamale received an Instagram makeover at the Bronx Night Market last year, where chef Israel Veliz was selling a deep-fried Oreo version and another inspired by Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — playful takes on the ones his mother taught him to make.
Veliz runs a Mexican restaurant in the Bronx whose main dish is the tamale, and to keep the business up and running, he sometimes participates in New York’s outdoor food festivals.
“First we brought plain tamales, which wasn’t really working because people nowadays, they expect their food to be beautiful,” Veliz says. “So we had to do something more.”
In came the Oreo and Cheetos versions, marking the evolution of a centuries-old dish to Instagram sensation. But at his restaurant, City Tamale, where most diners aren’t photographing their food for social media, Veliz sticks to tradition, stuffing tamales with chicken and salsa verde, though he says he’s toned down the spice levels.
“We’re making the tamal more approachable and adjusting to the needs of New York City,” he says.
NYC is now home to taquerias, cantinas, and fine-dining restaurants that offer a wide range of Mexican cuisine — but only a handful are fully dedicated to the laborious yet cherished hand-made dish known as the tamale. That’s something that three local restaurateurs are on a mission to change.
In Mexico, the tamale is both a breakfast staple and a celebratory meal, nearly always present at holidays or birthdays, and it’s very much a part of everyday life. But these meat-stuffed pockets of masa (corn dough), hand-wrapped within corn husks and steamed, haven’t had as big a presence here, at least not in standalone restaurants. Instead, tamales are typically found on the street, inside subway stations, or as a part of a larger menu.
Fernando Lopez wanted to change that when he opened Factory Tamal on the Lower East Side two years ago. He had one goal in mind: to make the tamale more mainstream.
“I wanted to take the tamales out of the ‘underground,’ and make it a daily dish for every New Yorker,” says Lopez, who is originally from Puebla, Mexico. “I wanted to show people the way that my hometown does the tamale.”
It’s the same reason Veliz opened City Tamale in 2016, farther north in an industrial part of Hunts Point in the Bronx. Veliz says the restaurant’s main customers are people that work in the area, most of whom weren’t familiar with tamales at the time, at least not the way they’re made in Mexico.
“It took a while to conquer the palate of our community here in Hunts Point,” he says.
Both restaurant owners have found themselves tweaking century-old recipes to better capture a non-Mexican dining audience — whether that means introducing quirky (and pretty) nontraditional flavors or replacing ingredients perceived as unhealthy.
It’s a tactic Catalina Jacinto knows well. She helps her mother run Tamales Lupita in East Harlem, a counter-service spot that sells gluten-free tamales, a decision made in response to diners’ requests, she says.
It’s a family-run operation, and the tamales themselves represent a marriage of two recipes: her mom’s technique comes from Guerreros, while her dad’s recipe hails from Puebla. Yet the masa is now made with gluten-free cornmeal.
“We stay with the same recipe, but we’re also adapting to new things, so we’re not left behind,” Jacinto says. Part of that means keeping up with diet trends. At Tamales Lupita, there are even tamales that fit specific diet fads — like the keto diet.
The movement toward healthy eating is something Veliz and Lopez are hyper-focused on. Veliz has nixed lard from his masa due to its unhealthy rep, using vegetable oil instead at City Tamal. He even advertises “gluten-free corn masa” on his restaurant sign outside. And Lopez, who makes tamales daily, following a recipe that was passed on to him from his mom, who got it from his grandmother, has added vegetarian options to the menu at Factory Tamal for the same reason.
Factory Tamal was the first brick-and-mortar tamale operation on the LES, a neighborhood more historically prone to Jewish and Chinese restaurants. He says he soon noticed that diners there favored healthier fare, and some didn’t eat meat. This pushed him to create a portobello mushroom tamale and a zucchini one, squarely aimed at bringing those people in.
Despite all the adaptations, each tamale recipe remains very personal, a family relic translated to a new dining landscape. Veliz, Lopez, and Jacinto all began making tamales from home, selling them on social media or the street. When operations grew too large for their apartments, all three took the risk to open their own restaurants.
Veliz believes they’re on the right track — “people have become more aware of what tamales are,” he says — though it could take some time to reach the ubiquitousness of a taco.
“It’s a special dish that may not please everybody,” says Guillaume Guevara, who runs a Mexican store in the East Village called Miscelanea. While he himself loves tamales, he questions whether a restaurant based solely on that one dish can prosper in today’s climate.
It’s something the owners behind Factory Tamal, City Tamale, and Tamales Lupita are aware of, having diversified their menus with other Mexican fare as well as breakfast sandwiches, salads, and panino, just to bring people in the door. They also sell combo platters, pairing tamales with a piece of chicken, eggs, or breakfast potatoes. Since the tamales themselves are priced between $1.50 and $3 each, it’s also a financial play to add more things to the menus.
The effort is paying off: Lopez estimates that half of Factory Tamal’s diners are return customers, and he’s already looking for a second location. Veliz is now selling his vegetarian tamales to cafes around Manhattan and is adding Sunday brunch service starting this weekend. Tamales Lupitas recently attracted a visit from Eater critic Robert Sietsema, and Factory Tamal and City Tamale, too, have landed positive reviews in the New York Times, which they say have helped bring in more customers.
“Before there were no taco shops, and now there are taco shops everywhere,” Lopez says. “My mission is to open Factory Tamal everywhere, so people can get tamales anywhere. It’s an open market. There’s no competition.”