As soon as you make your way into El Griton Grill, you’re greeted with a boisterous voice that echoes off the walls of the Mexican eatery. It’s the voice of Gustavo Godinez Sr., one of the owners of the family business and a former mariachi musician.
He’ll ask you how your day is going, and if you ask for a menu recommendation these days, he’ll point you to the No. 12. It’s an order of three tamales, a staple in Latino culture you read about in The Times on Thanksgiving, or “día de acción de gracias.” More and more, tamales are becoming a staple in Latino-American culture, too, as holidays in the U.S. fuse well with typical Latino traditions of gathering family and celebrating with food. They’re fairly easy to make, can be prepared in bulk and carried around, encouraging large gatherings.
On Tuesday. Nov. 27, Godinez and his family laid out how the famous dish is made — often using eyeballed ingredients and made by feel rather than precision.
“All the people in Mexico, any house, they know how to make tamales,” said Godinez Sr., who grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, a region on the Pacific coast west of Mexico City.
In his house, and in his restaurant, it’s his wife, Imelda, who does the cooking. She said she is a self-taught cook who doesn’t measure her ingredients. She does it all based off taste and feel. She’s been at it since she was 15 years old, so she knows her way around the kitchen, especially when it comes to tamales.
“It’s a lot of work, and it makes me tired,” Imelda Godinez said. “This is tradition in my little town … especially in the cold weather, everybody makes it.”
The first step in making tamales is preparing the corn husks. They come dried, but have to be rehydrated in warm water to ensure they fold properly, keeping all the other ingredients wrapped up inside.
“You’ve got to make sure it’s cleaned, make sure it doesn’t have any corn hairs,” Godinez Sr. said.
Gustavo Godinez Jr., their son, said the next part is the most important: While the husks are soaking, the dough, or masa, has to be made. It’s a corn flour dough mixed with chicken stock, spices and a little vegetable oil.
“Once we get all that, we just mix it, mix it and mix it,” Godinez Jr. said. “Once I feel it’s pliable enough, we’ll put them on the corn husks, which at that point, they’ve been soaking in warm water, that way they can bend easy instead of breaking, and we’ll put a portion of it, flatten it out a little bit, then add the filling.”
The filling, also an important part of the tamale, is where chefs and home-cooks can get creative — almost any variation of filling will do. At El Griton, they like to serve pork or chicken tamales. They can also be vegetarian and filled with beans or cheese.
“The white people like chicken and the Hispanic people, pork,” Imelda Godinez said. “Really, they’re (Hispanics) never asking about chicken.”
Pork is her favorite, too, although she said she likes hers spicier than what she serves at the restaurant.
“I try to make it not too spicy,” Imelda Godinez said. “The pork is really good spicy, but I try to not make it spicy so everyone can enjoy the tamales, like kids and everybody.”
Once the filling of chicken or pork is seasoned and cooked, assembly begins.
A corn husk is laid out and a portion, which Godinez Sr. said his wife doesn't have to weigh or measure “because she just knows,” is added and flattened out. Then the filling is added and the husk is folded over in order to enclose the filling with the masa dough.
Finally, it’s wrapped like a burrito and tied with a shred of corn husk and put in a pot to steam for about two hours.
“We make about 100-something per batch, which will last me like two weeks if I’m lucky,” Godinez Jr. said.
At El Griton, they’re served unwrapped, drizzled with sour cream and your choice of salsa on the side.
The one thing Godinez Sr. said you have to order with tamales is a drink called atole.
It’s a warm drink made with milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract and corn flour to thicken. All the ingredients are blended and heated in a pot and served with tamales, especially in the wintertime.
“It’s not set in stone, but it’s actually a really good idea,” Godinez Jr. said. “(Tamales) warm you to the bone and (atole) almost warms you to the bone as well, and, somehow, it works together.”