The tradition of tamales has been passed down from generation to generation in San Antonio. Whether it’s arguing over which filling is best or resharing the tale of President Ford biting into a tamale with the husk still on in front of the Alamo, San Antonians have a special place in their heart only tamales can fill.
While tamale-making is often a craft practiced by dedicated home cooks continuing their own family tradiciones, some San Antonians have chosen to make a full-time business out of making the labor-intensive treats.
Here are the stories behind three popular San Antonio tamaleras, or tamale makers:
For San Antonio tamale maker Michelle Manon, tamales aren’t just a holiday tradition. Born and raised in Mexico City, Manon recalls eating tamales year round growing up.
“In Mexico it’s like having pizza,” she said. “I have some very good memories of tamales bringing the family together.”
After moving to San Antonio 25 years ago with her husband and two kids, Manon was surprised to find it very difficult to find traditional South American tamales wrapped not in corn husks, but in banana leaves. So Manon decided to make her own.
Manon founded local tamale wholesale and takeout shop Tamahli 12 years ago. While about half of her tamale varieties come wrapped in banana leaves sourced from Goya Foods, she sticks with the Tex-Mex tradition of corn husks for the rest.
Manon said she takes pride in her tamale flavors, which are each quirkily named by herself and her now-adult kids. From “Pig in a Husk” to “First Kiss,” Manon’s tamales range from traditional pork-filled tamales to sweet and unique tamales filled with cinnamon and nuts.
San Antonio has come to be home, Manon said. In past years, she’s participated in local Holiday-time tamale festivals around the city and at the Pearl. While that’s not possible this year due to the pandemic, wholesale and takeout has helped keep Tamahli in business, she said.
Tamahli is a partner of grocery store chain Whole Foods, and its three vegan flavors can be found at Whole Foods locations across the Southwestern U.S. Tamahli first partnered with the grocer in 2014, Manon said.
“Our tamales were first sold out of their hot food bar, but with COVID those all closed temporarily,” Manon said. “We’ve sold our packaged vegan tamales from their frozen section since last year, and hopefully when the hot food bar reopens we will be selling products out of both sections again.”
After a particularly busy holiday season last year, Manon said Tamahli completely sold out of pre-order wholesale tamales by Dec. 8. After purchasing a new facility that will serve as Tamahli’s enlarged manufacturing plant in January, Manon said she and her team will be more prepared for Christmas rushes in years to come.
Their new manufacturing plant will be located at 814 W. Rhapsody Dr. San Antonio residents will still be able to order online by the dozen or half dozen and pick up tamales from the new facility, Manon said. She added they are hoping to get the new 15,800-square-foot plant up and running sometime next year.
Tamahli, located at 314 Spencer Lane, accepts holiday orders through its website.
SA Tamale Boy
Juan Rodriguez remembers what it was like to grow up poor on the West Side of San Antonio. At 5 years old, he started going door-to-door selling tamales with his mom and siblings.
Rodriguez recalls moving around often; his parents were migrant workers, and he spent his earliest years traveling with them from state to state as they sought jobs. They eventually settled just south of San Antonio in the Somerset area, where Rodriguez graduated from high school and met his future wife. Even as a teen, he helped his family make ends meet by selling tacos and tamales door-to-door.
“The people would see me and be like, ‘Hey, it’s tamale boy!’” Rodriguez said. “Saturday and Sunday, we’d always go knocking and ask people if they wanted to buy them. They were excited we were knocking with [homemade] tamales.”
Even as a kid, he said he knew selling tamales was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Rodriguez remembers dreaming of opening a storefront and bringing the joy of homemade tamales to all San Antonio families.
He started with a food cart, selling tamales and tacos outside of bars or around the South Texas Medical Center. He quickly became known as “Tamale Boy,” and gained a following of local customers.
While he tried other odd jobs on and off throughout his life, Rodriguez said he always came back to tamales. They were his pride and joy, something he enjoyed selling more than corporate products.
In 2017, Rodriguez opened a successful storefront, seeing his childhood dream fulfilled. He recalls it as one of the proudest moments of his life.
“When I opened here three years ago, I already had a good clientele base,” he said.
Rodriguez said one of his favorite parts of making tamales is trying out new combinations.
“Maybe 20 years ago, I came up with the Kadillak Tamale,” he said. “That’s the name for it today. Everybody knows us for that – it’s cream cheese, chicken, and jalapeño.”
During the busy holiday season, the Kadillak tamale is one of his best-sellers, he said. Rodriguez gets help running the store from his wife and their four kids.
While the pandemic has caused insurmountable problems for many small-business owners and particularly restaurateurs, selling tamales from a storefront works well because his product is made to go, Rodriguez said.
“The truth is I’m humbled and floored people would come to me and want my product and want Tamale Boy at the Christmas table,” he said.
SA Tamale Boy is located at 5300 South Flores St.
In 1980, Valerie Gonzalez and her ex-husband Jose Lopez invested just $500 into a small storefront where they began selling fresh tamales near Woodlawn Lake.
Now, with seven locations across San Antonio and 40 years of experience, their business Delicious Tamales is one of the city’s best-known tamale makers. Delicious Tamales distributes approximately 3.8 million tamales a year across Texas and the U.S., according to the company’s website.
“We started with one store and then got approached to go into local grocery chains,” Gonzalez said. “But for us, we wanted the quality control of our product, so we said, ‘Let’s open another store,’ and then another.”
Even in their first year of operation, Gonzalez said the holidays were always extremely busy. She recalls getting up around 3 or 4 a.m. most days and making thousands of tamales. As Christmas approaches, it’s not unusual for lines to form outside the stores before they open.
Now Gonzalez and daughter Herlinda Lopez run the business together. Gonzalez, who bought out her ex-husband’s share of the company in 2006, said she plans to soon step back and let her daughter run the company and its 48-person workforce.
“We get along wonderfully,” Gonzalez said. “I love working with her. I don’t ever get tired of seeing her.”
Lopez recalls helping bag and sell the company’s from-scratch tamales out of their 30,000-square foot factory as a young girl. Delicious Tamales is headquartered at 1330 Culebra Rd. in a building purchased in 1983 as the company’s second location.
“Delicious Tamales is older than I am,” the 38-year old said with a laugh.
Lopez said she’s touched every year when returning customers tell her Delicious Tamales have been their holiday tradition for decades. Now with an 11-month old daughter of her own, Lopez said she is proud to be part of a family business that supports San Antonio families.
“This is San Antonio … we’re a part of the city,” Lopez said.