As a travel editor and writer, I rarely linger in a single restaurant (or hotel, or museum) when visiting a new destination. Rather, my trips are typically a whirlwind of checking off countless places in what’s often a short amount of time. Over the last decade and a half, this habit has crept its way into my everyday life. (No surprise that I’ve never been a regular anywhere.) But after a recent move to Mexico City, that all changed, and I have a tiny, weekend-only tamale stand in the historic neighborhood of Coyoacán to thank for it.
Pablo, a handsome and affable 40-year-old ex-military man, presides over Tamales Chiapanecos Maria Geraldine, named for one of his cousins. Hidden behind a wall in a back alley off of Jardin Centenario (one of the area’s main squares), it’s difficult to spot the simple set up—two to four round tin containers filled with tamales, and a few dark green plastic stools—unless you knew to look for it. And I didn’t, and likely never would have, until a neighborhood friend tipped me off. My family and I have been eating there every Saturday or Sunday (or both) ever since.
According to Pablo, the story of Tamales Chiapanecos Maria Geraldine begins in 1942, when his late grandmother Maria Hansen Valdez and his uncles arrived in Mexico City from Tapachula, a city in Chiapas not far from the Guatemalan border. Maria started making the Especial—a paperback-sized tamale stuffed with a seemingly incongruent array of flavors and textures that somehow complement each other perfectly: chicken, green olives, plums (pits and all), raisins, almonds, bell pepper, and a rich, chocolate-y mole. She sold them in the streets of La Roma, a now-hip neighborhood to the north of Coyoacán.
A few years later, she—along with Pablo’s aunt Guadalupe—moved the business to the current spot and added more variety to the menu. Not long after, Maria was offered the chance to buy the land she was on, and little by little she purchased the alley’s surrounding property, now home to a number of restaurants owned by Pablo’s cousins and a brewpub that belongs to his brother and a cousin. Over the years, many family members have come and gone running the stand, which sells about 400 to 600 tamales per day of the weekend (the shop is closed on weekdays). As Pablo puts it, “Cousins, uncles, brothers, and sisters—we've all been here.”
Pablo’s aunt Clara currently does all the cooking at her home, a process she starts two days ahead of time; on Wednesday, she begins the batch for Friday night. When I asked for a recipe for the Especial, Pablo indicated his aunt prefers to keep her process a closely guarded secret and broke it down in the simplest of ways. “Cooked masa, the fillings, shredded chicken, my grandmother’s mole recipe—and it’s ready,” he says.
Tamales hold a prominent place in Chiapas cuisine. In fact, it’s said that the state—which is sandwiched between the state of Tabasco and Guatemala—has more varieties than any other in Mexico. The menu at Tamales Chiapanecos offers up eight traditional versions, wrapped and steamed in giant banana leaves or cornhusks. I’ve worked my way down the entire list, sampling one studded with small chunks of panela cheese, salsa, and chipilín (a common Chiapaneco herb that has a mildly earthy flavor when cooked) as well as the Bola, a small, thick pocket filled with hunks of off-the-bone pork ribs and guajillo chile salsa. Then there are the sweet ones: the simple and sugary corn kernel-filled tamale and the brown-colored tamal de café, a blend of coffee from Chiapas, walnuts, and raisins in which you can see (and taste) the grounds.
But my favorites, the ones I now turn to every weekend, are the Especial and the Cambray. These two are not your average appetizer tamales. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever seen one so big until I laid eyes on the Especial. The longer, skinnier, burrito-shaped Cambray, meanwhile, has tender strips of beef and pork, apples, pineapple, olives, plantains, almonds, raisins, scallions (or cambray onions), mole, and red wine. The corn dough is both dense and melt-in-your mouth soft; if masa makes the tamale, then these are the best I’ve ever had. As a whole, they’re savory, a little spicy, and sweet all at once. I often save a bite of just the masa edge and call it dessert.
If the craving for real dessert hits, you can walk a few steps to La Fondue, a cozy, casual restaurant owned by Pablo’s cousin Raúl. The aptly named (and well-regarded) spot serves a chocolate fondue, with the expected fruit and marshmallows for dipping. There are also 10 savory options, including one that adds a touch of chipotle to melted gruyere and gouda. Next door is the aforementioned brewpub, the no-fuss Mesón de Buen Tunar. On weekend afternoons and evenings, the patio seats fill up fast with groups of friends sharing pitchers of the house specialty: relojera, a mix of dark beer and red wine. (Pablo also recommends a beer mixed with clamato, to stave off a hangover.) Next door, his cousin Eva presides over La Selva Café, an indoor/outdoor coffee shop known for its organic, fair trade coffee; the second level has a large mosaic wall and paintings by local artists that are all for sale. And finally, cousin Aldo runs Abbiamo, an Italian restaurant with simple wooden tables that serves pizzas, pastas, and salads.
The old me would have rushed to eat at each one of these spots—and eventually, I’m sure I will. But for now, I’m more than satisfied with my routine of grabbing a stool and catching up with Pablo over a couple of tamales.
Tamales Chiapanecos Maria Geraldine is open Fridays from 5 p.m. to midnight and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. You’ll find it to the right of the Church of San Juan Bautista.