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Cooking Tamales Is Like Making Art, Says Dallas Chef Known For His Corn Husk Masterpieces

Gus Contreras / KERA News
Jesse Moreno, owner and chef, of La Popular Tamale House in east Dallas.

Whether you buy them at a store or make them in the kitchen with family, tamales are popular during the holiday season. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation. Lots of people skip the cooking and just flock to La Popular Tamale House in East Dallas to buy the corn-husked goodies.

I caught up with the Jesse Moreno, chef and owner of the tamale house, in the kitchen as he made a batch.

His recipe? Part family tradition, part art form – and a lot of love.

Interview Highlights

On making tamales

"Making tamales is an art. The corn husk will be your canvas, and your masa is your paint, and your spatula is your brush, so you spread it out. If you want a variety of life, you create the different types of fillings, and then of course, depending on the filling, that's the sauce you use. You use either the tomatillo sauce or the spicy red sauce. It's an all-day process, really."

On sharing his tamales in Dallas:

"I always wanted to introduce something wonderful, something from the heart, a gift to Dallas. To me, I looked at it as giving them something kind of like...They've got to understand our culture and understand that it's just a matter of knowing each other. You've just got to understand each other. So my gift to Dallas was tamales."  

Credit Gus Contreras / KERA News
A batch of fresh tamales finish steaming at La Popular Tamale House in East Dallas.

On growing up eating tamales:

"When I was growing up in Hill Country, I would go to school and people didn't know about tamales, Mexican food. We couldn't even eat our Mexican food in the cafeteria. We'd be thrown to the gym in a corner and I would just say, 'If only these people knew what they're missing. This food is so good.' But today, 40 years later, people are craving them in tortillas, burritos. Today, you can't make enough." 

On passing the tradition to his son:

"I'm getting older and slower. I wonder how long the tradition will go on because in 2005, I had a stroke. I even went to San Antonio because I lost my right side and bought a machine. By the grace of God, a week prior to opening up a new location, I got my hand back, so I sent the machine back. Not only do I love making tamales, I also enjoy making them because I use them as a source of therapy for my hand." 

Credit Gus Contreras / KERA News
A worker mixes the corn masa that will eventually be spread in the tamales at La Popular Tamale House in East Dallas.

On the process of making tamales:

"It's got to come from the soul. If you do a tamale with your heart and have respect for it, you've got to treat it with respect. If you don't enjoy it, you're better off buying them. We get people, former customers that lived here in Dallas, and then they go off and sometimes they can't get them, but they send their moms and dads. We get all kinds of walks of life here at our place. We're blessed that every person that walks through our door, it could be a common person to the mayor of Dallas, even the governor, whoever. Everybody has a need when they come to us, and we're very proud that we are privileged to serve and to meet their needs." 

Gus Contreras is a digital producer and reporter at KERA News. Gus produces the local All Things Considered segment and reports on a variety of topics from, sports to immigration. He was an intern and production assistant for All Things Considered in Washington D.C.