The fiery heat common in much Mexican cooking can be too much for most American palates. Hence the ubiquity of watered-down Tex-Mex joints across the city. But if you’re ready to venture into more authentic territory, here’s the perfect first step: Visit the tamale vendor who sets up outside the Chelsea Flea Market every Saturday from about 9am to 2pm.

Tamales are probably the quintessential street food of Mexico, which may have the most vibrant street cuisine in the world. The traditional tamale is a long dumpling of cornmeal (masa harina) dough that has the consistency of firm polenta. Tamales usually have a meat filling and are steamed within a corn husk or, in this case, a banana leaf. This vendor offers just one filling—a generous portion of hand-shredded chicken studded with chunks of carrot and strips of mild-hot green chiles.

Chicken Tamale in Banana Leaf

The presentation here is particularly gringo friendly, perhaps catering to the diverse (and kooky) buyers and sellers of the market. The tamale lady will pull one of the little packages from her heated cooler, snip the twine off, and unwrap the casing for you. It’s like getting a little present. Optional toppings are a supernaturally bright salsa verde and a red hot sauce. Neither is really necessary as the tamale has plenty of flavor already, but they do visually dress up the otherwise drab-looking corn pie.

The sign of a good tamale, in our opinion, is the level of heat. And these hit it just right. On first bite the chile hardly registers. But the trick is that during the long steaming time, the corn dough disperses the burn of the peppers. So it’s only when you’re almost finished eating that the heat comes over you. It’s not a kick in the mouth, but a slow, sweet warmth that envelops you. For three dollars each, these tamales are twice the price of their counterparts found in the far reaches of the outer boroughs, but the convenience is worth it. And they provide just the right amount of fuel for a day of perusing the odds and ends of the flea market (which these days has shrunk, thanks to another apartment tower going up, to just the indoor Annex garage space on 25th Street just west of 6th Avenue).