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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Positively 24th Street: BART Station Tamales Prove Quietly Satisfying

Posted By on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 at 10:04 AM

click to enlarge A Tamale Lady tamale at Zeitgeist. - JKAHN/FLICKR
  • jkahn/Flickr
  • A Tamale Lady tamale at Zeitgeist.
It's 2002, and you're just pounding foamers at the 'Geist. You've been living in San Francisco for a month. A lady in a wool cap comes out to the patio, pushing a wheeled cooler, hawking tamales. How sweet is this, you think -- not just because you're drunk, but also because you're from Ohio, and you've never seen anything like it before. You enjoy a tamale. The next time you see her, you're at another watering hole, and you're equally stoked. How fortuitous, you think: different bar, same killer tamale. You eat another one. For the next year or so, every time you see the Tamale Lady at a bar, you make a point of getting a tamale to enjoy.

However, at some point, tamale temptation subsides. Something keeps holding you back, and you're not sure exactly what. Maybe you're fixated on the fact the price for each little husk-wrapped slug of masa has risen steeply since you first arrived. Maybe you've started seeing too many Tamale Lady t-shirts around town. Maybe someone made a documentary about her. Suddenly, everyone really loves the Tamale Lady -- so much that she's become a local celebrity on a par with Frank Chu or one of the Counting Crows. You can't hate on her success because her wares are good, but you'd rather champion an underground snack hero than support the tamale establishment. You're over it. Over the years, new food obsessions -- tortas, soup dumplings, bacon-wrapped hot dogs -- come and go, some lingering longer than others. While you still sometimes hear the Tamale Lady's late-night call beckoning down a stretch of barstools, your stomach remains unmoved.

click to enlarge Escalator to the tamale guy. - PEEPHOLE/FLICKR
  • peephole/Flickr
  • Escalator to the tamale guy.

Then one day in the summer of 2009, under more sober circumstances, you decide to try another tamale. Famished, exhausted, gliding up the 24th Street BART station escalator after a grueling day at work, you spot a man with a black trash bag perched to the left of the flower vendor positioned in front of the exit. He has neither a t-shirt line nor a documentary to trumpet his existence. You won't find him on Twitter (yet); he wasn't celebrated at the Street Food Festival two weeks ago.

You buy a bean tamale for $1 (less than half the cost of what you would pay for one of the Tamale Lady's), take it back to your apartment, and eat it. It's filling, slightly salty, with a rich core of red beans. With a shake or two of hot sauce and a sprinkling of homemade pickled red onions, it's actually very nice -- not amazing, but significantly better than you'd guessed: a respectable nosh unfettered by cult fandom and unreasonably high expectations.

Male Tamale Vendor 24th Street BART station, most evenings (we think)
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Andrew Simmons


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