Tamales. On my constant quest for that perfect staple of Mexican cuisine, I have nibbled my way through many a savory meat pocket encrusted with stale masa, or delighted in a moist masa exterior only to hit meat so bland and dry it might be spun from fiberglass.

But I have found it: the tamale takeout window I've been searching for the world over. Snuggled up to Gene's Barber Shop, across the street from Conley Hat Manufacturing Company, in faraway Madrona, a tiny kitchen, swampy with moist heat, is kicking out some hand-held palate pleasers, boasting silky white corn dough that actually tastes like corn. Unwrapping the banana leaf reveals a perfectly steamed tamale--neither sticky-gooey, nor crumbly--ensconcing some understated and deft fillings. The more traditional shredded pork ($2!) flares with roasted chiles, but couldn't beat the mushroom/chile/cheese creation ($2!).

A glass deli case hosts hefty platters of these tasty treats, fillings ranging from black bean to fish mole. You can buy 10, or 15, or 100, and take them home and eat them every day. I returned to do just that, but found myself ordering an entire family dinner. Next to the tamales, there was a beautiful tray of blanched asparagus, drizzled with a sweet-chile sauce. There were tiny empanadas, stuffed with picadillo, and queenly black beans, and pan-seared fillets of cod, sprinkled with pine nuts. The massive dinner for (a ravenous) four ($24.95) includes one quart each of black beans and boring rice; crisp green salad laced with grapefruit, orange, and jicama; a bonus bucket of that day's vegetable (the zucchini did me just dandy--one notorious Beige Diet adherent actually tried some); and two entrée choices.

You can't go wrong with the tender, sweet carne asada, sliced miraculously thin by the Villa's resident butcher, who also washes dishes. Lucky me--this particular sunny day featured chile-icious grilled pork, sliced in a similarly slender manner, allowing just that much more surface area to absorb the firecracker of a marinade.

Over the course of return visits, which are not recommended for anyone in a hurry (some cranky-pants white guy jangling the change in his khakis grilled me: "Did you order a lot of food or something? So is this place good? Is it good, but slow?"), I sampled the Villa's entire lineup of burritos ($4.95-$6.95). While the overly dry lime and garlic chicken breast lacked the succulent splendor of the fish and steak, the grilled adobo tofu shocked me with its five-chile paste kiss. Layered with beans, a smoky chipotle sauce, a little rice, and (glory be!) collard greens(!), Villa Victoria's burritos are well structured and novel.

Naomi Andrade Smith has run a catering business out of this compressed kitchen for the past three years, opening her window to the public three months ago. Thursdays now feature posole ($6.95 a quart), popping with sweet white and yellow hominy and served up with all the accouterments: avocado slices, oregano, jalapeño, onions, radishes, and cabbage. Smith's eyes glowed with near-maniacal passion behind her sporty, bold white octagonal eyewear as she wafted the soup's aroma at me. I already knew that we were probably soul mates from her brilliant collard greens in the burrito trick, and this posole glee deepened my admiration.

Hypnotized by the choreography of this efficient kitchen, I shouted questions at Smith as she spun from station to station, rolling the cash register aside to let a prep cook past. Over the fan's hum, she relayed snippets of her culinary influences, revealing the inspiration of the collards burrito. Her father, an African American, fled Oklahoma and moved to Mexico to avoid being drafted during World War I. He married a Mexican woman, Smith's mother, and lived there until the late 1940s. In Smith's family, Oklahoma's ubiquitous greens and biscuits met Mexican home cooking, resulting in the kind of creative takes on Mexican food that Smith slides out her tiny takeout window. If you want a 30-second burrito, I believe you know where you can go. But if you've got some time and need a tamale that even your abuela might approve of, schlep yourself over to Madrona. Get a haircut while you wait.

Villa Victoria Catering

1123 34th Ave, 329-1717. Tues-Sat 11:30 am-7 pm. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up.