By Bob Marshall
Feature photo by lucianvenutian
When I found out that I was moving to Chicago, I decided to celebrate by, what else, watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations that takes place in the city. If you’ve never watched an episode, it goes a little something like this: food journalist Anthony Bourdain travels worldwide finding interesting dishes in every place he visits. His added snark helps set the mood for someone without an expertise in food to get excited about local eateries.
Now, I had heard of “Chicago-style” hotdogs, but “Chicago-style” tamales? That’s a little something else. Bourdain opened his episode traveling to Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots on the far South Side and filling himself with the “Mother-in-Law,” a tamale sandwich that seemed a bit difficult to digest, but looked worth the effort anyway. After watching the episode, I decided that I too would traverse Chicago for the perfect tamale, but, not to copy Bourdain, I would find my own husk of tamale paradise.
Now, something the episode didn’t touch on was the fact that the North Side isn’t exactly the place to find that tamale. The closest I got was a visit by the infamous “tamale guy” to the Long Room in North Center. Still, with the man’s travel patterns hard to predict, I could not find a stationary restaurant open regular hours to get my hands on the tamale I so desperately craved. Finally, a tip from a fellow who works at a vintage clothing store on Belmont and Western told me about a “famous” restaurant in Pilsen called Nuevo Leon that did in fact serve hella good tamales.
Wow, that dude was right on.
Mere blocks east of Ashland on 18th street stands what would seem to be merely one of thousands of Mexican restaurants located in the heart of Pilsen. The inside is a completely different story altogether.
From the restaurant’s clientele, it was obvious that many patrons had traveled from all over the city to seek out a place that locals spoke of. The sunny interior contrasted starkly with the growing clouds in the sky, with walls adorned with paintings of fountains, plants, food and the like, Though Neuvo Leon was intimidatingly populated upon my arrival, but with no trouble I was able to find a spacious table complete with immediate and attentive service. There, on the menu before me, lay my goal: a tamale platter with rice, beans, and four husks for a total of $6.
Now, being from Wisconsin, I don’t claim to know much about tamales. What do I know? The 40-minute bus right, the ride home in the rain, the money spent on transportation and food and the hours searching around the North Side were all worth it. Ten minutes after ordering, I was treated to the best Mexican meal I’ve had the opportunity to try for a very reasonable price. As for the tamales? Let’s just say taste them for yourselves, and if you can show me any better, be my guest. Seriously, be my guest, I want to eat them. I frickin’ love tamales, is that a crime?