Friday, August 12, 2011

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas Are Stuffed with Love and Tradition

There is one simple thing that stands out most about the tamales Alicia Villanueva cooks, and it is that they are made with love. It only takes one bite of her delicious tamales to recognize that Villanueva has a special talent, and that hard work puts her tamales a step above the rest. With an appearance at the third annual San Francisco Street Food Festival on August 20th and the launching of her very own food cart at Justin Herman Plaza in September, the future is looking very busy and very tasty for Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas.

Villanueva, who originally hails from Mazatlan, Mexico, has always had a passion for cooking. She has been making her tamales, which are crafted from a family recipe passed down through generations, for years. She came to California over a decade ago, lives here with her husband and three children and wants to introduce the memories of her home through her food.

"There are a lot of cultures here [in the United States], in a very cosmopolitan country," Villanueva said, "and I really decided to bring my culture through my kitchen—the Mexican kitchen. When I came to the United States, I really admired this country and the people who work so hard. Everyone has a really nice opportunity here, but you have to work hard and go for it."

After cooking for her friends and family for years, she decided to start her own business. Villanueva started getting the word out by knocking on doors in her neighborhood and selling her tamales in front of Santa Isabel Church in Oakland. She also started catering. At first, she thought about taking her business to the next level on her own but encountered both financial and bureaucratic difficulties. It was then that she discovered ALAS por las Mujeres Latinas (the women's initiative) at La Cocina, and the wheels were soon set in motion.

Villaneuva, who dreams of someday having her own restaurant, said that the day she was accepted into the La Cocina program was one of the happiest days in her life. She started in pre-incubation, where she learned aspects of both marketing and finance, and then moved onto the incubation stage, where she is now.

"I just want to say thanks to La Cocina," Villanueva said, "because they make my dream come true. Without them it's really hard. The best thing is to be in La Cocina because if not I don't have those big opportunities."

Villanueva currently has four tamales that she has created, inspired by her grandmother and mother's recipes. According to Villanueva, those deceptively simple tamales have a lot of secrets in them, passed down to her by her mother. She offers a chicken tamale with vegetables such as carrots, peas, potato and zucchini that is topped with a bright salsa verde. There is also a Oaxaca cheese tamale with salsa verde and green pepper. Her pork and beef tamales are topped with a salsa roja, and her sweet dessert tamale, which recently won first place at the Alameda County Fair in the sweets category, contains mango and coconut. She plans to offer all versions of her tamales every day at her cart. Villanueva's passion for tamales is even evident in her slogan: "The best tamales are stuffed with love, and the best people are stuffed with her tamales."

I had the chance to sample the Oaxaca cheese tamale at the San Francisco Street Food Festival media dinner a few weeks ago, and it was absolutely amazing. The salsas were robust and flavorful, the corn was moist and the cheese imparted a nice overall taste. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and the hours of painstaking preparation really came through. I tried over 20 dishes that night, and this one was one of the only ones that I wanted seconds of.

As a member of the La Cocina community, Villanueva will have access to their kitchens and will spend the over 10 hours it takes to prepare her tamales there. She will then sell her tamales from her carrito, which will be located on Justin Herman plaza near the Ferry building, alongside fellow La Cocina alums Onigilly. In the beginning she plans to be there Monday through Friday during the day, but she will experiment to see which days are best. Villanueva also plans to be part of Off the Grid's Fort Mason market on Fridays.

Alica's Tamales Los Mayas first debuted at the 2010 San Francisco Street Food Festival, and Villanueva is looking forward to participating in this year's festival as well. She is extremely proud of her fellow chefs and hopes that many people will join in the festivities.

"I want to invite everyone to the festival," Villanueva offered. "I really want everyone to come to support us and taste the delicious food that all my partners cook. I really admire all of my partners; they are really strong, hard-working women. Their food is so delicious, so please come and take a look at this beautiful festival."

Celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit of  San Francisco's street food scene, the third annual San Francisco Street Food Festival takes place August 20th, 2011 on Folsom Street between 22nd and 26th Street. Vendors will only accept cash or prepaid passports (sorry, no credit cards).

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas (@aliciatamales)
San Francisco Street Food Festival (@streetfoodsf)

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