Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas wraps the American dream in cornhusks

A couple weeks ago, Alicia Villaneuva watched with pride as a helper drove a small cart -- much heavier than a Costco grocery cart, but not much bigger -- onto a spot arranged for her in Justin Hermann Plaza, across from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

This is the next step in Villaneuva's American dream, which started 10 years ago when she came from Mazatlan, Mexico to Berkeley.

"Like everybody, I look for a better life and a better future," Villaneuva says. "In our country you work 24 hours every day but there is no money. It's a very poor area. I worked in the tourism industry handling conventions. But it is seasonal: no tourism, no work."

Villaneuva learned to make tamales from her grandmother. When she first got to the States, she made tamales and sold them in front of Saint Elizabeth Catholic Parish in Oakland. She also began selling them door to door.

"I knocked on people's doors and told them, 'I am a mom with three kids and I hope you will taste my tamales'," she said. "Fortunately the people said my tamales are very good."

Before you ask, yeah, that's illegal.

"I was selling my tamales under the table, no permits, no nothing," said Villaneuva, who has a green card. "I saved money, but when I go back to city hall, the rates increase."

She got in touch with the Women's Initiative for Self Employment, which she says taught her how to open a business in the United States. Then she went to La Cocina, a nonprofit in San Francisco's Mission District that helps people set up small food businesses. La Cocina helped her navigate the city's murky permitting process, so she can set up her Tamales Los Mayas cart right across the street from Ferry Plaza, one of San Francisco's most popular landmarks for both tourists and locals.

She makes three kinds of tamale (all $3 each): pork with chipotle salsa, Oaxacan-style cheese with green pepper and salsa verde, and her favorite, chicken with carrots, potatoes, peas and salsa verde. "I cook a really delicious mole to put in the chicken, with tomatillo and cilantro and many different seasonings," she said.

I liked all three for different reasons. The pork tamale has a meaty, gamy flavor. The cheese tamale is a classic formula done right, with mild milky cheese and a few jalapeƱos. And the vegetables in the chicken tamale give it a freshness with a nice light level of spice. She offers alls of the tamales with two salsas, a cilantro-heavy green one and an extremely hot red one; be warned.

Villaneuva will be at her new spot in Justin Herman Plaza every weekday from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. One day she hopes to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

"Right now, it's just my small food cart," she says. "But I'm really proud."

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