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.
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.