Mamasita's TamalesMiles to Market - 2 Located 808 East Center Street
You could easily mistake what’s happening in the front room of Riverwest’s Café Centro for a family gathering. Half a dozen people sit around a table, talking. Each one has a task to do.
One fills a cornhusk with masa dough. The next person spreads it out. Another adds some filling. Then the cornhusk is wrapped once, twice and a third time before being tied off and cooked for an hour in a steam bath.
This is how tamales are made. Except, this isn’t a family gathering. This is Mamasita’s Tamales, a small business started by two Michelles, Dettloff and Jones. Unlike traditional Mexican tamales, on which they based their recipe, the two Michelle’s decided they wanted to make vegetarian and vegan tamales.
“A lot of people are surprised we don’t use meat,” Dettloff said. “We’ve had Mexicans come up to us and say they’re really good, which is always a compliment to me.”
Dettloff calls them “gringo tamales.” Instead of the traditional fillings found in Mexican tamales — pork and green sauce, chicken and mole, bean and cheese — Dettloff and Jones fill their tamales with things like cashew coconut curry, black bean and plantain, sweet potato and pinto beans.
The air in Café Centro, where the two Michelles rent the kitchen, smells faintly of corn. There are two giant pots on the stove — one for steaming cornhusks, one for steaming the tamales.
Michelle Jones reaches into one of the kettles and pulls out one of their creations. This is how tamales are supposed to be eaten.
“They are the best when they come out of the pot,” she says.
Unwrapping the piping hot cornhusk reveals what is basically a corn flour dumpling, light and moist. This one is sweet from the plantains and only slightly spicy.
The two Michelles met in 2005 while working at the Riverwest Co-op. They’d both managed the kitchen at different times.
Together they started doing rogue restaurants around Riverwest, changing locations and menus. They got the idea after Michelle Detloff had mentioned something about hidden dinner parties in Mexico.
The last rogue restaurant they did had a Mexican theme and featured tamales, which generated a lot of excitement. The two Michelles continued to make tamales for family and friends and sold them online. The business took off and has been growing ever since. They started selling their tamales to Riverwest Co-op and Beans & Barley, then Outpost and Madison’s Willy Street Co-op.
“Tamale to me is like the ultimate fast food. You don’t need utensils. It comes in it’s own wrapper,” Dettloff said. “Tamales are like comfort food. People get really nostalgic.”