Until I watched Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run, I had no idea that tamales are kind of a big deal in the Mississippi Delta. It might feel kind of random that this Mesoamerican dish gained a foothold and developed its own character in the southeast. But one story suggests that migrant workers from Mexico who shared fields with African Americans also likely shared foodways. Another possibility is that American soldiers who fought in the Mexican-American War brought the recipes back with them. Either way, they're in our neck of the woods (or near enough), and they're worth checking out.
Here's a bit more about Delta tamales from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Since watching The River Run (so... since roughly 2007), I've been meaning to make a day trip over to the Tamale Trail to give them a try, and I've done a horrible job of achieving that goal. It's still on the list for a future food adventure.
Last weekend, though, we took a quick trip to Birmingham for lunch at Delta Blues Hot Tamales. The spot opened on Cobb Lane in December, serving tamales by the half-dozen or dozen and tamale plates with additional toppings, along with other offerings like tacos and jambalaya.
First of all, I love the location of the place. We're not especially familiar with the Five Points South area yet, but tucked in just off a little cobbled street it feels a tiny bit hidden away and special.
We started with fried dill pickles. The first time I ever had this appetizer was at Green's Barbecue in Gantt, Alabama. Combined with their dipping sauce, they were exactly the right combo of salt and sour and ranch for my sixth grade self. The Delta Blues version topped them because they were crinkle cut, hamburger dill chip-style, the better to hold that extra-crispy breading, and they were served with comeback sauce. I most definitely believe in the power of comeback sauce.
Matt demolished an order of catfish strips, and Erik and I each ordered a tamale plate. We preferred the pork tamales over the black bean, though it's great that there's a vegan option. I definitely recommend the M'sippi Melt, which comes topped with crossroads queso and charred corn relish, adding a bit of crunch, sweetness, and creaminess to balance out the heat of the tamale. So good! I also appreciate that the tamales are cooked in corn husks, not paper. They're unwrapped for easy eating, but laid out on a husk on the plate, and you can still see the pattern of the husk on each tamale. We ordered the small plates, and each came with a side, so we got the corn macque choux. It was perfectly seasoned and delicious - definitely worth ordering again. We were so busy tasting and talking about the food that we forgot to take any photos after the starter!
We weren't certain how kid-friendly the place would be, though the inclusion of a kids' section on the menu certainly gave us enough confidence to make the drive. Turns out it's a great spot for families: one of the staff pointed us toward a collection of toys near the entrance (we declined, but it was nice to know they were there), and the service was quick and friendly. Our server interacted directly with Matt, chatting with him and offering him the check at the end of the meal. Engage my kid - score big points with me.
We're definitely going back. It's a part of our southern culture and heritage, and it's really yummy, too! I can't wait to try the Tamale Pie and Ragin Cajun. And also perhaps talk them into selling macque choux by the bucket. If you're in the area, definitely give them a try!