Holiday Feast Issue

Tamale Season Arrives in the Flathead

From food trucks to commercial kitchens, fresh tamale sales are picking up as Christmas draws near

By Mike Kordenbrock
Erin Wilcox loads wrapped tamales into a pot for steaming in Kalispell on Nov. 17, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Thomas Taber is familiar with the memes (captioned jokes shared widely on social media) when it comes to tamale season. And in his eyes, they’re basically true. 

“Tamales start in November, and really don’t end until the middle of January,” Taber said. “You know, it’s tamales for breakfast, tamales for lunch.” 

The owner of the Bigfork-based Taco Loco food truck, Taber is originally from the south Texas town of Laredo while his wife, Maria, is from Mexico. They moved up to the Flathead in 2018 and set up their truck in the parking lot of the Kalispell Fred’s Appliance outlet, which is managed by a relative. 

They didn’t start out selling tamales, however. Instead, customers kept lobbying them with requests, and once they started making tamales, word of mouth has delivered a steady queue of new clients. Some of those people simply wanted the south Texas flavor profile present in Taber’s pork tamales, which use Mexican guajillo red chiles. As he explained, different chiles — whether they be New Mexican, or Californian — impart different flavors. And tamales aren’t just restricted to some combination of pork and red chile. 

Erin Wilcox makes tamales in Kalispell Nov. 17, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The basic formula involves a wetted corn husk, which is then covered in a mixture of corn-based dough called masa, which is mixed with lard and stock. A filling then goes on top of the masa, and the whole combination is rolled up inside a corn husk wrapper before it’s arranged alongside other tamales vertically in a pot for steaming.

“Basically, it’s a family affair for Hispanics,” Taber said. “Everyone’s got to pitch in. Everyone helps … it’s an assembly line. You have someone that grabs the corn husk and wets them down, and then the next people are filling with masa, the next fills with meat, and then the next person basically rolls them. Then you have the architect, who knows how to put them perfectly inside the pan, so they all steam well.” 

In a 2021 article, Jose R. Ralat, Texas Monthly magazine’s taco editor and food writer, reported that there are “at least 350 types, according to the authoritative text on Mexican food, the ‘Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana’ by scholar-chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita.” The dish predates the Spanish conquest by 7,000 years, according to Ralat’s article, which notes that Texans and Mexican Americans tend to reserve making tamales for the holiday season, particularly Christmas. 

Erin Wilcox loads tamale dough into corn husks for her tamales in Kalispell on Nov. 17, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In addition to its red sauce pork tamales, Taco Loco sells a chicken salsa verde tamale, and is willing to fulfill special requests whenever possible. Taber and Maria have made jalapeno and cheese tamales, as well as beef tamales. They also make sweet tamales with pumpkin filling. 

Erin Wilcox is another tamale purveyor in the Flathead Valley whose offerings include: roja pork tamales made with seasoned bone-in pork shoulder and guajillo chiles; seafood tamales including a combination lobster and shrimp variety; a poblano-corn sauce lobster tamale; and a “lobster cake casserole” tamale. Wilcox also makes stuffed butternut squash tamales with garlic, scallions, chipotle peppers, Spanish olives, golden raisins, capers, orange zest and cilantro. She also makes a variety of dessert tamales, including pumpkin pie, apple pecan and spicy dark chocolate.  For an extra charge, customers can request tamales wrapped and steamed in plantain leaves. 

Wilcox has a small commercial kitchen in the back of the Crown Room Casino off 701 E. Idaho St. in Kalispell, where people who order tamales can pick them up at a drive-thru window. The kitchen space was used to house her former business, El Cafecito, which is currently closed. She’s working to open a new café at the same location under a new brand.

When it comes to tamales these days, Wilcox is a one-woman operation, and said that her tamale business snowballed years ago when she and her former partner made them for Christmas for a friend. But as recently as the summer of 2021, she and her former partner were making hundreds of tamales in a week while regularly selling out at farmer’s markets.

A rojo pork tamale made by Erin Wilcox in Kalispell on Nov. 17, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Wilcox has a background as a professional baker, and grew up in a military family. The first eight years of her life, she lived in Japan, where she was exposed to Japanese food and culture, which she still holds dear. She learned how to make tamales sometime around 2013 by reading the recipe that came on a bag of masa, and later learned and developed sweet tamale recipes by consulting cookbooks. She thinks part of the food’s allure is that tamales are not widely available in the Flathead. 

“It reminds them of somewhere else, whether it’s the Midwest, whether it’s Mexico, or whether it’s California,” she said. 

In Taber’s words, making tamales is “a pain in the a–.” 

“It’s time consuming,” he said. “But it’s one of those things that, as much as it’s time-consuming, the end product is delicious.”

“The best tamale is a reheated tamale. A lot of people think it’s eating the tamale right after it’s been cooked a bit,” Taber added. “The best one is when you get them in the morning, and you put them on what you would call a comal, which is basically a hot plate, and you just toast that corn husk until they warm up. It’s just the best thing in the morning with a cup of coffee.”

To order tamales from Erin Wilcox, call or text her at (406) 210-5404. More information about her tamales can also be found on her Instagram page www.instagram.com/el_cafecito_mt. Wilcox’s next tamale pickup is scheduled for Dec. 24.

To order tamales from Taco Loco, call Thomas Taber at (817) 944-5561. Taco Loco typically offers tamales for pickup on Tuesdays. After a brief hiatus, the business will begin taking tamale orders again Nov. 26. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/tacolocollc.