Saturday dawned wet and gray, but that didn’t stop the crowds from showing up at the Pearl’s Tamales! fest Saturday. An expanse of canopies set up in the parking lot behind the Full Goods building protected the stalls, nonetheless. We arrived to find lines two-and-three persons abreast, waiting for the corn-wrapped (or in some cases banana leaf-wrapped) tamales.
“It didn’t rain on us, but water had collected in the canopy above us when we got here. It was going drip, drip, drip here,” said Diana Barrios–Treviño, restaurateur and owner, with her family, of Los Barrios’ two Mexican restaurants. That situation was easily remedied by draining water off the canopy, and the rest of the day went smoothly.
Tamales weren’t the only things on the menu. The CIA Bakery set up a booth to sell savory scones, cookies, baguettes and other breads. Food trucks from La Gloria and El Bucanero were serving up non-tamale items at this, the second annual event.
Among the most popular tamales were those from Tamalhi, a San Antonio restaurant selling gourmet, hand-wrapped tamales, and offering tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Also Paloma Blanca, Tellez Tamales, Raquel’s, and Gardener’s Feast, from Austin, were busy.
The highlight of the festival for some was the tamale competition.
At about 2:30 p.m., a panel of judges sat down in one of the CIA conference rooms to taste the tamales that had made their way through rigorous screening. We were to judge the 5 finalists in each of three categories: pork, chicken and a “wild card” meaning just about anything goes. Each category winner would win $1,000.
As a couple of the judges admitted, they were a little leery of what items this category might contain, be it venison or more exotic meats. But, the entries turned out to feature interesting ingredients, such as apples and apple pie spice, black-eyed peas with ham and Thai curry. The Thai curry, in fact, had spicy heat that outstripped any of the other tamales sampled that afternoon.
Contest organizer Shelley Grieshaber spelled out the guidelines for the judges. These included Ron Bechtol, food writer and critic for The San Antonio Current; Rachel Benavides, managing editor for San Antonio Magazine, Jesse Perez, executive chef for Alamo Cafe; David Kellaway, chef and managing director of the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio, Courtney Bond, writer for Texas Monthly and myself.
Tamales first of all had to look good on the outside. In other words, no frayed edges or filling oozing out, no discolored husks, a nice uniform look. They had to have a good ratio of filling to masa, be rolled well and easily unrolled.
“Taste is the most important factor of all,” Grieshaber said. Any of the entries would stand or fall on taste, and we certainly found out exactly what that meant. One of the entries flavor would have been sensational — but for the fact that it was far too salty.
No tamale-making businesses were able to enter the contest – this was for amateurs. But, these practiced tamale makers turned out some excellent tamales, with tender masa wrapped around well-spiced meat with good texture. One entrant turned in beautifully wrapped tamales in banana leaf packets. Another tied the ends of her tamales at both ends with strips of husk.
The “wild card” category winner was apple pie tamale by Courtney Stone, with raisins and caramel. (An earlier story said this winner was a black-eyed-pea and ham tamale, but that was in error.)
In the chicken category, the winner was Mayra Gonzalez, whose tamales had a robust chile seasoning, a perfect meat-to-masa ratio. The third grand prize, for the pork tamales, went to Maria Reyes, whose tamales’ pork filling outshone the others in texture and taste.
A total of 168 contest entries were received. Prizes of $100 will also go to the non-winning finalists.
“We were really happy about the turnout — and everyone should be brushing up their skills for next year’s festival, too,” said Grieshaber.
Note: this article corrects an earlier error.