By Monica Ocampo
In order to understand how two masked Mexican wrestlers travel through Chicago’s city center selling tamales aboard a truck, it’s necessary to go back seven years, when the economic crisis of 2008 became for Manny Hernández and José Luis Balanzar the opportunity to create The Tamale Spaceship, the first food truck distinguished by promoting Mexican culture through the eyes and palate.
Manny, a native of Mexico City, and Pepe, of Acapulco, met at chef’s Rick Bayless’ restaurant, the Frontera Grill, which later closed and both lost their jobs. They both needed to find an alternative that would allow them to exploit all the experience they had acquired in order to survive, so they decided on an undertaking.
At first, they wanted to start a small restaurant, but the budget did not allow it; so they thought about offering food on a truck, but the health department only allows the sale of packaged foods.
They needed a product that was capable of retaining heat when wrapped and that could be served without complications at lunchtime; so tamales were their choice.
The best food truck
Once they bought the truck, and with the county requirements completed, the next challenge was to go beyond the red, green and sweet tamale, so they experimented with the filling: slow-roasted pig with habanero sauce, marinated pork, chile strips with goat cheese, beef fillet with mole. Currently, the menu includes eight options a day.
Fans of Mexican wrestling from the sixties and seventies decided to go to The Tamale Spaceship with masks of characters like “The Saint”, ‘The Ray of Jalisco”, or “Hurricane Ramírez”. “My father always took me to the wrestling matches when I was a kid. Coincidentally, my business partner is also a fan of this sport, so we decided to create our own concept”, explains Manny Hernández.
Five years later, The Tamale Spaceship has been nominated as the best food truck by three important city magazines: Chicago Magazine, Time Out and Reader.
A mother's seasoning
Even though the basic products for making tamales are found in Chicago, the founders of The Tamale Spaceship always strive to give a special flavor to their meats as well as the ingredients of their sauces when roasting, frying or seasoning them. “We do not open any cans”, warns Manny Hernández.
The technique, he says, he learned from his mother, who prepares tamales every time she visits him. “I learned how to make them like any child who helps his grandmother or mom on holidays”, he confesses.
During the week, Manny’s days start at five o’clock in the morning to inspect production of about 350 tamales. The menu offers eight varieties from different Mexican regions, so each one requires order and a special procedure: first, the chicken tamales are prepared, then the slow-roasted pig tamales, and lastly, the ones filled with chile strips with goat cheese. They also make French fries and guacamole with red tomatoes, onion, serrano chiles and lime juice.
The price ranges from $4.50 to $9.00 dollars -- If you want to order two tamales --. Although the site changes on different days of the week, the time is always the same: from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
They remove the thorn
In mid-2014, The Tamale Spaceship decided to settle in Wicker Park to offer, in addition to the same variety of tamales served on truck, tacos, salads and soups. After four years of saving, Hernández and Balanzar were encouraged to turn their business around to focus on Mexican dishes that they could not sell on the food truck due to sanitary regulations.
As the truck continues its route at lunchtime in the streets of Chicago, the owners of The Tamale Spaceship are happy to have gotten a permanent home. "Of course, it's the beginning. We want to capture more cities in the United States", notes Hernández.