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Insider Eats
March 20, 2023

Secrets of the Tamale Underground

By Cynthia Hochswender

Photos by: Sabrina Eberhard

Anyone who thinks of Mexican food as “fast food” has never tried to cook it. The traditional sauces, starches, and slow-cooked meats of Mexico can take hours—even days—to bring to perfection. Of all the labor-intensive Mexican foods, the one that is the most involved and complex is the tamale. For that reason, tamales are also the hardest dishes to find, outside of a private home.

Here in Dutchess County, one or two eateries in Poughkeepsie (the center of the region’s Latin community) offer tamales. Closer to home, fortunately, you can find excellent handmade tamales (weirdly) at the intersection in Amenia, where there are two purveyors, one on each side of the stoplight.

East of the light is Tienda Mi Esquina, owned by Jose and Kenia Melchor, a young couple from Veracruz, Mexico. Kenia was taught the art of tamales when she was 10 years old; now she makes several hundred each week with the help of her aunt, Petra Lopez.

Kenia says she sells about 50 tamales every morning to what she describes as “immigrant workers,” who stop in very early on their way to job sites. These customers particularly like the pork tamales wrapped in green banana leaves because “the banana leaves keep them warm,” she says, “The more traditional corn husk tamales get cold and the dough dries out after a few hours.”

West of the traffic light is the Shell service station where Consuelo Martinez (known as Tia Chely) also sells a few dozen tamales every morning. She learned her tamale technique as a young girl in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Both cooks can make a couple dozen different sauces, from the iconic chocolate-y molé sauce to the spicy chipotle-onion tinga. But because each sauce and each type of tamale can take hours to make, on any given day you will usually only find three types for sale.

You can usually count on finding chicken tamales, seasoned with red or green sauce, sometimes with molé. The meat and sauce are wrapped in tender corn masa and then steamed in a corn husk. At Tienda Mi Esquina, you can also find the pork tamales in banana leaves, if they don’t sell out first thing in the morning.

Both shops also typically sell “raja” tamales, filled with vegetables and cheese.

The Shell station has a full hot bar, with tamales, pupusas, fried tacos, mountains of fragrant rice, enormous pots full of beans, and fresh guacamole.

Tienda Mi Esquina does not have a hot bar but it has a full grocery, so you can buy numerous sauces to enhance your tamales, including a popular guacamole salsa, a premade molé sauce from El Metate, and jars of salsa roja (red) and verde (green).

You can get them heated up at both shops, or warm them up at home in a steamer basket for about 30 minutes (or wrap them in plastic and microwave them for 2 minutes).

Tamales at the Shell station are $3 each; to find out which tamales are available call 845-373-4433 or come to 5330 W. Main St., Route 44, Amenia, any time between 5 am and 2 pm.

At Tienda Mi Esquina, one tamale is $2.75; call 845-789-1038 or stop by 3294 E. Main St., Amenia. The store hours most days are 6:30 am to 8 pm.