In Made in Chicago: Stories behind 30 Great Hometown Bites, I wrote about Chicago corn roll tamales, which are “made on a machine that extrudes the cornmeal tube with a core of lightly seasoned meat (although sometimes those darker centers seem to be just cornmeal, mixed with fat, and tinted a brownish red). The Chicago corn roll tamale is an industrial product unlike anything you’ll find in Mexico.”
Mexican tamales are some of my favorite foods in the world, but I haven’t usually enjoyed the sometimes dry and flavorless corn roll tamales unless they’ve been drowned in good-tasting chili, as they are at Parky’s in Forest Park.
Then last May 1, on our way to Forest Home Cemetery to join Wobblies and other unionists for a May Day celebration, my brother Kevin and I stopped for lunch at Portillo’s in Forest Park. We ordered Chicago-style hot dogs, and Kevin got a corn roll tamale on the side (we ate them when we were kids in Portage Park).
Portillo’s version of the corn roll tamale was unexpectedly delicious! It was about twice as large as similar corn roll tamales offered by the two big Chicago companies, Supreme and Tom Tom. When I took the wrapped dogs and tamale out of the bag, it was difficult to determine which was which: the hefty corn roll tamale was about as heavy as the traditional Chicago dog.
The tamale’s yellow corn flour exterior was similar to Italian polenta, and the core seemed to contain actual meat. Portillo’s website says these tamales contain “seven secret spices,” the most prominent being cumin, common with all corn roll tamales and just fine with me.
One problem I’ve sometimes had with corn roll tamales at, for instance, classic places like Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park and Gene & Jude’s in River Grove, is that the wrapper of finely ground corn is sometimes dry and hard, like it’s been steamed and then, if unsold, refrigerated and re-steamed the next day. Portillo’s tamale, on the other hand, was soft and flavorful, due to both the care in preparation (it seemed freshly steamed) and what I suspect to be a fair amount of lard or vegetable oil that made it soft and moist (though, alas, somewhat mushier than a traditional Mexican tamale).
Corn roll tamales at Portillo’s are a “side,” and at Italian beef and hot dog stands, one gets the sense that the tamale is offered as just something to fill up any remaining belly real estate after you’ve downed a more substantial entrée. The Portillo’s version, however, can stand alone: a friend of mine remarked, “There’s times I’ll go to Portillo’s and have a hot dog *with* my tamale,” the corn roll tamale taking the honored place of an entrée rather just a side.
After lunch, we went to the Haymarket Martyrs’ memorial in Forest Home Cemetery and sang a few verses of “Solidarity Forever.” The crowd was enthusiastic though sparse because, as Kevin suggested, “it’s raining and they’re union guys.” The union makes us strong … and usually keeps us dry.