Food truck blasts off
Tamale Spaceship makes Bayless-caliber Mexican easy to grab and go
05/02/2012 10:00 PM
Amidst the bustle of gray-suited men and women in trench coats rounding Monroe at Dearborn last Friday noon, it was hard to miss the woman in the sparkly blue wig.
Especially since she was flanked by men clad in Lucha Libre masks.
For those in the know, it was just the weekly landing of The Tamale Spaceship, one in Chicago’s growing fleet of food trucks. Sofia Vasquez, Pepe Balanzar and Carlos Martinez were manning the back of the gun-metal gray “spaceship” run by Tamalli Space Charros. A yellow plastic chain tied from the truck to a nearby street sign guided the line of Loopers waiting for their weekly tamale fix.
“We offer great food with a little bit of fun,” said Tamalli Space Charros manager and co-founder Manny Hernandez. Though the space cowboy theme is admittedly silly, he takes tamales very seriously.
“Our menu is traditional Mexican dishes made into tamales,” Hernandez said. Case in point, this week’s Cinco de Mayo special is a tamale en nogada, a take on the traditional dish chile en nogada with a spinach tamale in place of the chile. When finished with a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, the dish emulates the colors of the Mexican flag.
“We want to represent our food the best way we can,” Hernandez, who hails from Mexico, said. “And we think outside the box.” Past tamale fillings paired beets with goat cheese and squash with ricotta. The group met while working at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill and they bring an upscale quality to the ingredients and preparation, even offering wine pairings on their website.
The tamale has always made for good street food. Steamed in a corn husk, heat and moisture are trapped in, delivering a meal still warm hours after preparation. These oversized tamales are served two to an order paired with a sauce — often a mole — on the side. For now, Chicago food truck regulations prohibit preparation in the truck, so mixing and matching is not possible. Guacamole and tortilla soup round out the menu.
Balanzar mans the truck five days a week, greeting everyone with a warm, “hello, amiga” or “amigo!” His most popular order is the picturesque tamal de Puerco, featuring roasted pork with a tomato-habanero sauce and purple pickled onions.
While the Lucha Libre masks attract customers to the truck, Hernandez says educating people on the food keeps them coming. “Our customers are food lovers,” he said. “And 70 percent of our customers are repeat. If I miss one week, people are tweeting at me.”
Twitter is the best way to find out where the two tamale spaceships will be landing. While one truck is dedicated to a set schedule for weekday lunches in the Loop, the second can be found at events and locations outside of the loop through the week.