Back when I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, there was a great place named Johnson’s Tamale Grotto where we would get “cup” tamales.  Cup tamales were made in – you guessed it – coffee cups.  They spread the filling into greased coffee cups, added the filling – the turkey cup tamale was the most popular – and then added more filling to the top.  They were then steamed until done and served with a brown sauce that went on everything.

San Francisco had scores of “Tamale Parlors” and “Tamale Grotto’s” once upon a time – most coming into being during the 1920’s.  We practically lived at The Hot House at Playland, and Johnson’s was a short bike ride when we were catching crawdads at Pine Lake.  (Yeah – we city kids had our pockets of country right in our own backyards – and the Pacific Ocean was 2 blocks away!)  Roosevelt’s is still in full swing – albeit a new remodel and menu has changed the place dramatically (and their website is still a mess…)  But I digress…

I bought a bag of masa a few weeks back thinking that I might just make some tamales, again… I actually used to make them all the time – they’re pretty easy to do – and even kept corn husks on hand.  I think my most memorable tamale party was my brother-in-law’s birthday maybe 25 years ago.  He’s a 4th of July baby and we had a huge party.  I made hundreds of tamales and consumed hundreds of  margaritas.  I think we had a great time.

Fast-forward to 2009…

I wanted tamales, didn’t have corn husks.  I remembered those wonderful Johnson’s Tamales (damn, I wish I had their tamale sauce recipe!)  and decided to go for it.

Tamale Dough

  • 3 cups Masa Harina
  • 3 cups lukewarm broth or water (I used homemade beef broth – I was roasting beef bones…)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup lard

Whip lard in mixer until light.  Mix dry ingredients in a bowl and then add lukewarm broth a nd mix with fingers to form a slightly moist dough.  Add to lard and mix well.


I had a couple of chip steaks that I simmered in the aforementioned beef broth.  I chopped them and then – in a skillet – mixed them with:

  • 1 diced onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp pasilla pepper
  • 1 tsp ancho chile powder
  • 1 can diced green chilis
  • 1/2 cup chipotle sauce
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Saute chopped beef with the onions and garlic.  Add green chilis and spices.  Add chipotle sauce and simmer.


I used 10 oz souffle cups.

Grease containers well.  Place about 2 tbsp dough in bottom of cup and press down.  With a small spatula or knife, spread dough around the inside of the cup to the rim, leaving a well for the filling.

Place a couple of tablespoons of filling in each cup, pressing down.  Add a bit more dough to top to cover and smooth.

Cover with foil and place in deep pan.  Add boiling water halfway up cups and bake at 350° for 1 hour.

Tamale Sauce

I’ll never be able to replicate this one…

  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 jar mole paste
  • 1 tbsp assorted chili powders (I have several.  I just added some of all of them…)
  • 2 cups aforementioned beef broth
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp Mexican oregano
  • salt and pepper

I sauteed the onion and garlic, added the fresh tomatoes, then the canned.  I added the rest of the ingredients and then hit it with an immersion blender.  I then strained it and put it back into the pot to simmer.

I made the (brown) rice with bottled enchilada sauce thinned with yet more of that beef broth.

The beans were canned pintos to which I added jalapenos and sofrito sauce.

Dinner was really, really good.

This one took some time, because I really did do it all from scratch.  I think if I could find a good all-purpose Mexican Red Sauce (maybe I’ll take a run out to Wegman’s one of these days) it would save a lot of time.  Plus, I hadn’t done these in a really long time, so I took my time putting them all together.

Tomorrow is Chinese New Year – the year of the Ox.  I can guarantee no Oxtail Soup.