When Juan García moved to Seattle seven years ago, it didn’t take long for him to notice the critical dearth of tamales around here. Back in his hometown of Quincy, WA, where about three-quarters of the small town is Latinx, it wasn’t hard to find places offering a good, authentic tamal. You’d think in a metropolis, there’d be at least a handful. Not really, and especially not back in 2011.
García knew an opportunity when he saw one. He spent the next few years cooking in local restaurants—Bastille, Toulouse Petit, Stoneburner—and learning the biz. His mom taught him her tamale recipe, and he reinforced his skills by spending a few months in Mexico making tamales with his grandmother and perfecting the method. After a few tweaks—like adapting his equipment for an indoor kitchen, in contrast to the open-air one his grandma used in Quintana Roo—he was ready for business. He started out at the Queen Anne Farmer’s Market in 2015 before eventually branching out with his roving pop-up tamale shop, akin to the style of San Francisco’s famed Tamale Lady—except he shows up in the early evening, when the bars open, not when they close.
Right away, García’s hunch was confirmed: There was definitely a market in Seattle for tamales. Particularly with the influx of Californians to Seattle, he says, who are like, OH SHIT, NUH UNH, YOU HAVE TAMALES?? To be fair, a few new tamale spots have sprung up in town since he began, but most of them are not what you would call “traditional”—teriyaki chicken tamales, anyone?—and Seattle’s more authentic tamales are generally found in sit-down restaurants. We’re hard up around here, so I’ll take it, but you lose something in that aesthetic, I think.
García’s tamales fall somewhere in the middle. They’re not served out of a filthy camping cooler at the bus station (not talking shit on filthy cooler food, to be clear), but they’re also nowhere near fine dining. His tamales are also dope as all hell. The masa is fresh, spices correct, there’s plenty of meat, and each one is reasonably big for $6 apiece. I tried all three tamale flavors, and struggled to finish them on an empty stomach.
His veggie tamales are vegan, and they’ve been a hit with herbivores and carnivores alike, made up of grilled asparagus, potato, and roasted red bell pepper, and standing out among other veggie tamales I’ve enjoyed thanks to the inclusion of charred cauliflower. It gives the tamale some unexpected texture, and the caramelization adds depth. Usually, the problem with veggie tamales is that the filling ends up squishy by the time the masa’s fully steamed, but not with these tasty dudes.
That kind of describes most tamales you find in Seattle, veggie or otherwise, Garcia points out. “The ones I see, the meat is always, always shredded, and it’s covered with melted cheese and served with refried beans. There’s no texture. It’s mush.” To combat that, he says, the meat in his tamales is chopped, not shredded, so you can get a nice, chewy chunk in every bite. Along with the veggie, he offers two meat tamales: a traditional chicken version, and either braised beef or pork belly, which is way more pork than belly, really. Sometimes he has handmade desserts, too; he talked about a peanut butter and apple mousse for next time.
In addition to being a labor of love, García’s method of tamale-making is super labor-intensive. He does everything by hand—almost. “My grandmother grinds the masa herself, and I can’t do that because I wouldn’t make any money that way. It takes forever!” Everything else, though, is performed by his army of one, for now. He even slices the cabbage for the slaw—which is dressed in a citrusy cilantro vinaigrette—to spec because the store-bought stuff is too chunky. “The vinaigrette slides right off the stuff in the bag. You need it thin-cut.” His escabeche—a colorful assortment of pickled veggies—is homemade, too. As well cutting the richness of the tamales and serving as a palate-cleanser when you switch between tamale flavors, the escabeche is a major part of what makes the presentation so sexy and pretty, along with the bright smear of either salsa verde or fruity, spicy salsa rojo, made from puya chiles.
Right now, he doesn’t have a definitive schedule. Garcia is all over the map but tends to pop up in breweries, and they seem to be mostly in and around North Seattle—Peddler, Populuxe, Lantern, Urban Family. You can also occasionally find him at Chainline in Kirkland and Machine House in SoDo. Sometimes, he hangs outside of Juno Therapeutics on Dexter to capitalize on the lunch crowd coming out of nearby office buildings.
But you can pretty reliably find Juan García the Tamale Guy at The Dane in Crown Hill on Wednesday nights, from 5 to 9 pm, where he operates out of the little side bar on the left. I suggest getting there right around when he does, though. Those suckers will be long gone by 9.
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