Happy holidays to you…and may your tamales be tasty

#633 in a series of true experiences in real estate
December 2011, Hills Newspapers

About a week before Christmas my kids started talking about what they’d like to eat during present opening and the day after. Tamales were suggested, old-fashioned, in-the-husk, preferably homemade tamales, which sounded good to all of us. We talked about making them but only for a minute. I know that many, maybe all, Mexican groceries have a deli offering carnitas and quesadillas. They must have tamales too. Anet and I decided to go see.

We thought we’d try Mi Pueblo on High Street in Oakland, a former Lucky’s with a big, busy street side parking lot. We’ve noticed the store many times as we drove past on our way to Alameda but never stopped. Near the entrance to the store is a man charcoal-barbequing chickens. No sauce that I could see, just golden brown, split-down-the middle, flayed-out chickens. We stood and stared at the chickens. There was no sign saying how much they cost and no cash register so we thought maybe you pay inside.

Anet asked the man “Do we pay inside?” He didn’t say anything but he handed Anet a chicken leg. We didn’t know if he didn’t speak English or he hands out samples to anyone who stops. Anet ate the chicken, which she said was even better than Costco chicken, and we went inside to see about buying chicken and tamales.

We turned left and there at the front of the biggest Mexican grocery I’ve ever seen was a nativity scene – family and animals circled by boxes wrapped in Christmas paper, but no baby Jesus. We were sort of startled. Had the figure been stolen?

We kept walking, past the bakery with a vast display of pastel-colored rolls and cookies and ladies behind glass display cases to dispense them. Next was produce and every sort of chile, both fresh and dried, bundles of stick cinnamon, tamarind pods, and sugar cane. Along the back of the store is a large meat selection including such finds as tripe and chicken feet.

The middle of the store holds regular grocery aisles stocked with pretty much what you’d expect at any grocery. They do carry more bottled hot sauce than we usually encounter elsewhere including our favorite Pico Pica at the great price of $2.99 for a large bottle.

We had reached the deli which takes up a sizeable portion of one wall. On the hot table were enchiladas and sauces, carnitas and chicken, various cooked beans. And kept cool were fruit and vegetable salads, guacamole and salsas. But we kept moving that first visit because we still had not spotted tamales.

Toward the front of the store on one side is an area with tables where people sit to eat deli take-out and next to that the money order counter. Walking by we spotted what we’d come for – the tamale lady. She was selling warm tamales in husks and doing a brisk business. When it was our turn we asked if she had sweet tamales but she apparently did not understand us and did not answer. She did however sell us pork tamales to eat out of hand. $1.62 each and, we learned on our next visit, $15.00 per dozen.

Sold on tamales, we went to one of the main cash registers to see if we could buy a barbeque chicken. The checker understood us fine and took our $10. More money than Costco but after eating it, we thought it was worth more and we’d be buying again.

We asked a friend about the absence of baby Jesus. Anet wanted to know if she used tourist Spanish – “Donde esta Jesus bambino?” – would that work? Our friend laughed and said we’d probably get some looks with that one. His birthday is Christmas and that’s when he will appear in the store, not before he’s been born.

We’ve been back twice since that visit, once on Christmas Eve to buy tamales and guacamole and chips, the second time on New Year’s Eve. The mood that afternoon was festive, made more so by loud happy music playing on a speaker hung above one aisle and reaching well into every corner. We could hear among the band a tuba – ompa-ompa – such thumping good sounds that I told Anet I would have come just to hear that tuba.

The store was busy, the baby lay in his manger, there was a large crowd of happy people: kids being pushed in carts, a long line for those wanting pastries, people taking numbers and keeping time to the music as they waited for their turn at the meat counter. It was the sort of scene that precedes a group dance number in the movies.

The tamales were very good. The guacamole, which is extremely fresh, chunky and snappy tasting, is the best we’ve ever eaten. Even if we made it ourselves, it wouldn’t be this good. Even if we found avocados on sale at $1 each, we think paying $5.99 a pound the guacamole is a deliciously good deal.

I said to Anet that, other than the beach, I couldn’t see any reason to go to Mexico when we could go to Mi Pueblo instead.

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