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Tamales Today 

With the most famous purveyor of New Orleans tamales out of business, others fill this spicy niche

In much the same way that their red flavor burns your lips, their wet grease stains your fingers and their bomb-drop weight rests in your belly, the lore and memories of New Orleans' hot tamales have a way of sticking around, too.

Many of them revolve around Manuel's Hot Tamales, founded in 1932. For generations of New Orleanians, the sight of a Manuel's vending cart at a street corner up ahead, lit by the dim glow of a railroad lantern and emitting aromatic steam on cold nights, was the embodiment of the peculiar regional version of hot tamales. Simmered in an oily slurry of drippings and tomato sauce, they were a far cry from the traditional Mexican tamales steamed in cornhusks. But still these cork-sized plugs of ground beef, cornmeal and cayenne could be a holiday side dish, after-school snack, late-night drunk food or take-home family dinner, depending on the time or season.

The Katrina levee failures destroyed Manuel's ground-level factory and walk-up service window in Mid-City and damaged the upstairs home where some of the family owners lived. The building was sold to a local couple who are completing a renovation of the South Carrollton Avenue property and plan to open a sandwich shop called the Porch there soon.

But while the Manuel's legacy languishes, there is no lack of tamale makers in town eager to sate the craving, including both newcomers to the market and long-established Manuel's competitors.

Merlin Fleury is a bit of both. For decades he supplied a circuit of Seventh Ward barrooms and sno-ball stands with his own hot tamales, based on a recipe he found printed in a newspaper in the 1970s. In January, he and his family opened their own restaurant called Merlin's Place in the former Teddy's Grill location in Gentilly. While these tamales don't lack for flavor or spice, they are less greasy than many other renditions and can be eaten by hand without needing to roll up the shirtsleeves as a precaution. Bigger than normal, a half dozen makes a filling lunch, especially with a side of Fleury's jambalaya, a rare example of an excellent restaurant-made jambalaya with two types of sausage, tasso and chicken.

The place for hot tamales in Metairie these days is Guillory's Grocery & Meat Market, a Cajun-style lunch counter and caterer tucked into a residential block just off Airline Highway. These are firm, dense, short tamales smothered in gravy dotted with bits of meat. Proprietor Peter Gauthier says he routinely packs tamale orders for customers to take along on holiday travel, bringing a humble but nonetheless exotic example of New Orleans cooking to relatives now living far from home. More often, the tamales are eaten in Guillory's spare deli-turned-dining room, either on their own or packed into a loaf of po-boy bread with grated cheddar.

Gauthier openly credits Manuel's as the model behind the Guillory's tamale recipe, and Fleury is proud that his own versions are often favorably compared to Manuel's, but variations abound around the city.

Pam Warner started her Hot Tamale Mama catering operation earlier this year, basing her recipe on tamales she remembers from a Baton Rouge restaurant called Muffuletta's. These are relatively fat, medium-spicy tamales and they are cooked in cornhusks, which, naturally, helps them taste more of corn and less of paper, the common wrapper for New Orleans tamales. She sells them along with packaged portions of cheese grits at the Mid-City Green Market on Thursday afternoons in the parking lot of the American Can Building.

On Jefferson Highway, close to the Huey P. Long Bridge, the po-boy shop Joe Sepie's Café periodically offers tamales that belong to the larger but gentler school of tamale recipes, in which the flavor comes more from the meat than the spice and drippings. And the tamale gets an entrée treatment at Buffa's Restaurant and Lounge. The galley kitchen at this Esplanade Avenue bar sends out a half dozen at a time with sides of salsa, sour cream, rice and beans. It's like a reunion platter of sorts, with the New Orleans tamales joined by the typical Tex-Mex accompaniments they must have left behind somewhere in their Southern evolution.

The West Bank remains the domain of Old Style Hot Tamales, a Gretna-based operation that keeps the old street-vendor tradition alive with all its quirks. In Gretna, Marrero, Westwego and Avondale, vendors work at carts or semipermanent plywood stands. By the light of strings of Christmas bulbs or Coleman camping lanterns " a modernization from Manuel's railroad lanterns of yore " the vendors fish out paper-wrapped bundles by the dripping dozen. Small and stubby, these tamales have a thin vein of beef, a solid casing of cornmeal and a blazing spice level.

They are also shockingly greasy, and after peeling back maybe just two wrappers, your hand can be laden with enough oil to accomplish an abstract finger-paint masterpiece of rusty orange on any number of napkins. This is a noteworthy indulgence even by the high standards for excess with hot tamales. But then New Orleans tamales were never intended to be dainty eating.

Buffa's Restaurant & Lounge

1001 Esplanade Ave., 949-0038

Guillory's Grocery & Meat Market

3708 Derbigny St., Metairie, 833-1390

Hot Tamale Mama

Joe Sepie's Café

4402 Jefferson Hwy., Jefferson, 324-5613

Merlin's Place

5325 Franklin Ave., 284-3766

Old Style Hot Tamales

2 0 0 4 C l a i r e A v e . , G r e t n a , 368-0071;

click to enlarge Merlin Fleury Jr. serves some of his father Merlin Fleury Sr.'s hot tamales at Merlin's Place in Gentilly - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Merlin Fleury Jr. serves some of his father Merlin Fleury Sr.'s hot tamales at Merlin's Place in Gentilly

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