Cafe Society

Tamales Moreno just might have Colorado's best tamales

Wait, Laura, which one is it?"

There were two tamale joints at the intersection of Mississippi and Sheridan. Making a hopeful guess, Rob pulled into the full parking lot of the one on the right, a trim building with a clean facade. A smiling family was wandering up to the door, which was held open by a smiling man holding a neatly wrapped to-go package of tamales.

Too bad it was the wrong place. "It's the other one," I said, after a long pause.

Across the street, Tamales Moreno stood in stark contrast to this picturesque little scene. The dilapidated, grubby yellow shack had a couple of cracked, unmarked parking spaces, both of which were empty. The restaurant looked empty, too.

Still, I'd heard magical things about Tamales Moreno's tamales, so we moved our car to one of those empty spaces, got out and pushed through the screen door. Inside, my impression of the place didn't immediately improve. The tiny room was fronted by a counter, which failed to hide all the kitchen equipment covered with a fine film of grease. The lone woman in that kitchen was turning down the heat under a blackened pot, which was smoking on the outside. A gumball machine by the counter was filled with candy that looked dusty and ancient. The supply of drinks in a soda dispenser on the counter had long ago dried up, and the machine seemed to be there just as decoration and, perhaps, extra lighting.

More photos: Hidden Gems at Tamales Moreno in Lakewood

And on a nearby table: tamales, a pile of them, bundled into Ziploc bags by the half dozen and awaiting refrigeration, I hoped, or maybe transportation. Still, the sight reminded me of all the women in retail parking lots around town, hawking Mexican street food as though it were an illicit drug, and I thought about how some of those women sell damn good tamales. Suddenly, I was starving.

We ordered a half-dozen filled with pork and green chile, which the woman who left the stove to fill our order told us was spicier than the red. And then we took our bagged meal out to one of the mismatched tables on the makeshift patio, wiping a layer of black residue off the surface with a napkin before spreading out our tamales and digging in.

Inside each corn husk was silky white masa so smooth that I wondered whether the corn had been mixed with lard. The sweet masa surrounded hunks of succulent red pork and bits of earthy green chiles that soon had racy heat running up the back of my palate. The tamales were delicious. I looked smugly across the street and wondered if those smiling people at Tamale Kitchen knew what they were missing.

The history of tamales dates back thousands of years, to the time when the Mayan and Aztec people used masa boiled in corn husks as a portable food. As the dish spread across Latin America, it appeared in assorted variations, substituting different fillings and wrappers according to region. Today you can find tamales stuffed with lamb's-head meat in Argentina, with plantain dough in parts of the Caribbean, and with raisins in Panama; they also might be wrapped in plantain or banana leaves.

In Colorado, though, the most common rendition is the Mexican one, which features pork or chicken and chiles stuffed inside masa and then wrapped in a corn husk. Though the basic recipe sounds simple, I've had a lot of mediocre tamales: It's hard to keep the masa from turning gummy or dry, and to make sure the filling in the center doesn't overcook.

Jesus Moreno has mastered the tamale, though, and he made it the focus of the Mexican joint he opened on this corner in Lakewood five years ago, adding breakfast burritos, burritos, tacos, enchiladas and menudo to the menu. Tamales Moreno was successful enough here that he opened a second place in an Arvada strip mall — that one with indoor seating and a cleaner kitchen, though less charm if you're into the hole-in-the-wall thing, as well as lettering on the window that boldly proclaims, "Colorado's best tamales."

I'm inclined to agree. On my second trip to the original spot, I ordered my tamale smothered. It came with a river of green chile that had the color and consistency of split-pea soup, as well as a sour tang and a pleasant, prickly heat. (If you're a glutton for punishment, the kitchen will gladly make that chile hot enough to melt your intestines.) I supplemented that snack with sides of rice and refried beans, which were definitely (and delightfully) mixed with lard and sparked with lime.

Still hungry, I ordered a round of steak tacos and a burrito of chicharrones and beans. The corn tortillas came heaped with bits of peppery steak and diced onions and cilantro, along with a plastic cup of a dark red salsa laced with smoky chipotle. The flavors were good, but everything was dry: the steak, the tortillas, even the wedges of lime served with the tacos. The burrito was a disappointment, too. It was coated in more of that pea-soup-colored green chile and filled with those good beans, but the chicharrones were a mistake. I love fried pork skin and can eat it like popcorn. But stuffed into a burrito, those large, crackly bits are awkward to eat; you can end up with a mouthful of nothing but bean-slicked chicharrón. Next time, I decided, I'd just order a side of chicharrones and put something else in the burrito.

And there would definitely be a next time: I was determined to find out if there was anything else on the menu as superlative as those tamales.

I got my answer a few days later, when I was looking for breakfast and drove down Sheridan. Once again, Tamale Kitchen had a full parking lot. Once again, Tamales Moreno was empty and sad-looking.

I stepped through the door of the latter and eyed the bags of tamales — as always, ready to go. As I waited for the woman behind the counter to turn around, I pondered a breakfast of masa. Instead I ordered a breakfast burrito, and discovered another good reason to seek Tamales Moreno.

The fresh, stretchy flour tortilla had been stuffed with scrambled eggs, crisp bits of smoky bacon and soft potatoes. I'd asked for green chile in the mix, and it had oozed into every crevice. There was some other seasoning there, too, some sort of smokiness or grease that can only come from a well-seasoned pan or, maybe, a grubby kitchen covered with old cooking film. Didn't matter to me; I polished off every bite of my breakfast while sitting at one of those grimy outdoor tables.

I was about three steps from my car when I turned around and walked back up to the counter. No reason not to get a bag of those tamales to go.

More photos: Hidden Gems at Tamales Moreno in Lakewood