Sit Down and Eat at Two New Main Street Eateries
By Wanda Cochran, The Oregonian
December 5, 2007
Two very different eateries have opened right across Main Street from each other. One is Casa de Tamales, an offshoot of Canby Asparagus Farm. People who frequent the farmers market in Milwaukie are familiar with their food.
They look like tiny presents packaged in sweet-smelling cornhusks or aromatic banana leaves. Beneath the wrapper is a layer of soft steamed cornmeal, the masa, a culinary tradition that is as old as the Aztecs. Another treasure is hidden deep inside, perhaps boldly seasoned meat or spicy chiles and cheese.
The allure of a tamale goes deeper than flavor. Whether you're savoring one from a food cart, a farmers market stand or a restaurant kitchen, you're devouring a food that has survived conquests, colonial wars, even violent revolutions.
Not that any of us remember this once we've forked some glorious filling into our mouths. But when a tamale doesn't taste so good -- when the masa is dry, the filling flavorless or barely there -- you wonder if its migration from Central America to los Estados Unidos hasn't rendered it a little travel weary.
So what makes a great tamale? First and foremost, the masa. The texture should have a transformative lightness -- it should crumble at the touch of a fork. But it should also be moist, with a pleasing amount of fat, be it lard, olive oil, vegetable oil or cream. This is tricky, for too much fat rarely results in lightness. Cooking times -- not too much, not too little -- are very important, as well. And the masa will taste best if its flavor -- sweet corn seasoned with salt and sometimes cilantro, cumin, oregano or other herbs or spices -- is subtle but not bland.
What's inside should also be distinctive: well-seasoned, stewed, shredded chicken, pork or beef that itself is complemented by a diversity of flavors -- perhaps chiles and onions, Spanish ingredients like capers or olives, or more Americanized ingredients like cheese or asparagus. Even a vegetarian tamale should follow the same rules. Ultimately, the challenge is this: making highly flavorful ingredients sing to each other. Order from one of the tamale aces below, unwrap it slowly, take in the scent, savor a bite or two, and you'll understand.
Casa de Tamales
By far, the best-tasting masa in town is at Canby Asparagus Farm's Casa de Tamales. This buzzing restaurant in downtown Milwaukie specializes in all manner of these Central American hot pockets, including vegan and vegetarian, a delightful asparagus-and-chicken tamale and even a seasonal, Northwest-influenced Dungeness crab variety. But the Nicaraguan-style nacatamales wrapped in banana leaves trump everything else on the menu. The masa, as with all the tamales here, is fluffier than steamed couscous, owing to the small amount of mashed potatoes, minced bell peppers and cream mixed into the cornmeal to keep it moist. This masa serves as the perfect foil for shredded chicken seasoned with tomatoes and onions, a plump dried plum or two, green olives and raisins. Gloria Vargas might claim a similar combination as part of her Salvadoran heritage, but apparently the Nicaraguans are onto something delicious, too.
(10605 S.E. Main St., Milwaukie, 503-654-4423, www.canbyasparagusfarm.com; a la carte $6.50 each, $9.50 with rice and beans, nacatamale with rice and beans $12)