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I Dream of Masa 

The Tucson Tamale Company offers up a variety of delicious, gluten- and lard-free tamales

I really, really like the Tucson Tamale Company for two big reasons:

1. The story behind the restaurant is fantastic: Intuit exec Todd Martin (with help from his wife/co-owner, Sherry Martin, and co-owner Kirby Bollnow) decides to follow a dream by starting a tamale business in the middle of a heinous economy, blogging about the experience for all the world to see. How can you not love a story like that?

2. More importantly: The tamales are damn tasty.

I was introduced to the Tucson Tamale Company's eats at the December Fourth Avenue Street Fair, and I've enjoyed their tamales several times since then, seeing as I live in the same general 'hood. Therefore, I largely knew what to expect when I went for my Official Reviewing Visits (ORVs): great tamales and friendly service.

The Tucson Tamale Company offers 10 or so different tamales at a time, along with several side dishes and three salsas (a mild red, a hotter red and a "medium-hot" green salsa), available in a variety of mix-and-match ways. One tamale is $2.95; a two-pack is $4.99 (with a 10 percent discount on six or more; when I picked up a dozen tamales to-go, my bill, tax included, came to $29.12). A plate with one tamale and a side is $4.79; two tamales and a side is $6.45. Family packs with various mixes of tamales and sides range from $13 to $33. Those sides (6 ounces for $1.95, or 12 ounces for $3.50) include basmati rice salad, grilled corn on the cob, corn chips with salsa, and black beans "with a kick!" One can also get guacamole and chips or a tossed green salad for $2.95.

On my first review visit, when I got the dozen tamales to-go, I got:

• Two Tucson tamales, which are filled with four cheeses (sharp cheddar, Jarlsberg, gouda and Monterey jack) and jalapeños. These were delicious with a nice bit of heat; my only complaint was that in the tamale I devoured, all of the jalapeño pieces were in the very middle, meaning several bites included only masa and cheese.

• Two Arizona tamales, with slow-roasted sirloin mixed with smoked chipotles. The smokiness definitely comes through, with some bites having more spice than others. While this tamale has a nice flavor, it's my least-favorite of the bunch, because the beef can sometimes be stringy and a bit dry. The recommended salsa with this one is the mild red ("Sherry's red"), which I found to be rather bland.

• Three Santa Fe tamales, with pork loin, green chiles, tomatoes, garlic and a little cheddar cheese. This is my favorite tamale--always moist and delicious. While the menu recommends the hot red salsa ("Todd's fire"), my palate thinks the green salsa ("Kirby's green") works best with it.

• Three Sonora tamales, with roasted chicken and tomatillos. This is another splendid tamale; like the Santa Fe, it's moist, delicious and nicely complemented by the green salsa. It could use a little more tomatillo taste, but that's a nitpick.

• Two Berkeley tamales, a vegan blend with black beans, corn, red peppers and "special spices." The corn dominates the taste; the beans add texture and cut the flavor of the corn just a bit. There's also a hint of sweetness--from cardamom or cinnamon, perhaps? I had to twist Garrett's arm to even try these--he does not like black beans, although he loves corn--but these are now his favorite. Who knew?

Other varieties that I didn't get to try include the Austin tamale, another vegan option with spinach and wild mushrooms; and the Wisconsin grilled cheese, which mixes the same four cheeses in the Tucson tamale, but excludes the jalapeños.

If you're in the general Tucson Tamale Company area, I recommend grabbing a dozen to-go. The tamales save well for several days in the refrigerator; they're easy and quick to reheat (just wrap one in a wet paper towel, and throw it in the microwave for a minute and 20 seconds); they're fairly healthy (no lard here; instead, Todd and company use vegetable oil and/or vegetable broth in their oh-so-smooth masa); and they make a quick-and-easy big snack or light meal.

So, I like the tamales--but, really, what does a gringo like me know? Therefore, I invited Mari Herreras and her mom--who themselves make damn good tamales--to join me at the Tucson Tamale Company for lunch.

I got the two-tamale lunch plate, with a Santa Fe tamale and the Tahiti dessert tamale (with roasted pineapple in mango/coconut masa); on the side, I got the basmati rice salad, which was decent. Mari and her mom each got the one-tamale plate, with Mari ordering the Sonora tamale and the black beans "with a kick!" (which come with pumpkin seeds), and her mom joining me by ordering the Santa Fe tamale and the basmati rice salad.

We sat at the one table at the front of the long, narrow restaurant; a half-dozen or so elevated, bar-level tables line the west side of the restaurant, allowing a view into the kitchen/prep area. The restaurant offers a comfy dining area, with various publications to peruse, paintings by Julius Gordon and a community chalkboard with various bits of info, but it's also a bit cluttered; this is a tamale-making operation first, and a dine-in eatery second.

I loved the Santa Fe tamale, of course, and was pleasantly surprised by the Tahiti tamale, which was sweet (but not too sweet) and tasty. Mari thought the Sonora tamale was OK--she stole a bite of her mom's Santa Fe and thought it was better--but thoroughly enjoyed the beans "with a kick!" (I found the beans to be rather ho-hum.)

But here's what matters: Mari's mom liked the Santa Fe tamale. She was impressed with the masa--although she admits that she prefers to use lard--and thought it was delicious.

Take it from Mari's mom and me: The Tucson Tamale Company serves up good stuff.

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