Many years ago, a young Juan Luis Silis started working at a taco stand a block from home. Not only did Don Ignacio Ramírez, aka Don Nacho, the taco master, become Juan Luis’ employer, he became a kind of second father to the young man. It was under Don Nacho that Juan Luis learned how hard you must work and persevere to achieve your goals.
In 2009, Juan Luis (who is now 40 years old) took off his apron and stepped into the distinctive traje de luces (suit of lights) of the torero. While working at the taco stand under Don Nacho, he had also been stomping his way towards achieving his true dream, that of becoming a professional bullfighter. He trained under the famous matador Mariano Ramos. Since then, he has performed in more than 60 corridas (bullfights, which are still legal in Mexico). But four years into his career, one fight in particular would change his life forever. On October 13, 2013, while performing in a bullring in the city of Pachuca, the horn of a bull named Peletero (the “skinner”) penetrated the left side of Juan Luis’ face, breaking his jaw and hitting his carotid artery. The arena doctor thought the concussed torero would not survive, and called in the priest to give the last rites to Juan Luis. In the plaza, the crowd prayed for his life.
He survived, coming back from a two-week induced coma. Peletero’s horn had damaged some of the torero’s facial muscles, and specialists were afraid he would lose vision in his left eye. After several months of very intense therapy, Juan Luis surprised his own doctors by stepping into the same bullring where he had almost died six month earlier. This time, Juan Luis emerged victorious: He was recognized as the best matador of the evening.
The torero has dreams of becoming a Figura de Torero (the No. 1 torero), but before that could happen, the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions on public events hit Mexico. At the beginning of 2020, lockdowns meant the collapse of many economic activities, and public events – including bullfights – were banned. Many lost their jobs as the whole world held its breath.
During that period, Juan Luis’s father-in-law, brother-in-law and cousin passed away. Out of the ring, the torero was struggling to survive, but the experience of working with Don Nacho and overcoming the horn of Peletero gave him the courage to persevere. In February, Juan Luis made a decision: He put his apron back on, prepared some atole (a traditional beverage made of corn flour, fruit, spices, and milk or water) and tamales and set up shop on the very same corner where Don Nacho’s now closed taquería used to sit. Thus the Tamales Tere street stand was born.
“We can’t give up,” Juan Luis tells us as he serves tamales from behind his stand. “We have to keep on living our lives. I started Tamales Tere selling just a few tamales and café de olla. Fortunately, people like to keep with this ancient tradition of having tamales and atoles at breakfast.” Juan Luis offers this combo Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The menu is classic and the tamales come served wrapped in a corn husk. The savory tamales include: verdes (green salsa, stuffed with pork meat), rojos (mole sauce, stuffed with chicken), de rajas (tomato sauce, stuffed with cheese and chile). Stuffed dulce (dessert) tamales are also on offer: tradicional (stuffed with raisins), zarzamora (blackberry), chocolate (chocolate) and durazno (peach). Atoles come in three varieties: champurrado (chocolate), fresa (strawberry) and arroz con leche (rice and milk).
Bullfighter Juan Luis donned his apron once more, prepared some atole and tamales, and set up shop on the very same corner Don Nacho’s taquería used to sit. The Tamales Tere street stand was born.
Juan Luis’ mother and the stand’s namesake, María Teresa Bobadilla Rodríguez, aka Doña Tere, is in charge of preparing the sauces and fillings, and Juan Luis prepares the atoles. He also cooks the corn used for the tamales before taking it to the mill to be turned into cornmeal, and handles the hardest job: forming the masa (corn dough) at just the right consistency, adding salt or sugar and pork lard as needed. This process involves letting the masa rest for a while, during which Juan Luis takes a short rest, before it is carefully stuffed and wrapped inside corn husks at three o’clock in the morning.
Once all the tamales are wrapped, Juan Luis adds them one-by-one into a steamer to let them slowly cook for another hour and a half, at least. “If among the family we fight, argue or get upset with each other, the tamales will never get cooked. This truth is set in stone!” Juan Luis jokes. The atoles are also set in stone: The drink is prepared in clay pots. “Nothing compares to the flavor you get with it,” he says.
“My dream is to see my name announced for the Temporada Grande at Plaza México,” Juan Luis tells us, referring to the “Big Season” of Mexican bullfighting, which takes place in the world’s biggest bullring. With Mexico City almost totally reopened, the torero has been hired to act in a couple of corridas (fights) this October at different arenas across the country.
But Juan Luis assures us he will continue operating his tamale stand. “This is a noble business that gives me the chance to provide the essentials to my entire family,” he says. Don Nacho would be proud.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article failed to provide a complete picture regarding bullfighting. Mexico is one of eight countries where bullfighting is still legal, though it was made illegal twice in the country’s history and is banned in four Mexican states. While it is classified as a blood sport in many parts of the world, in some places it is legally defined as a cultural event and heritage tradition. Though at Culinary Backstreets we aim to honor and respect the cultures and traditions of the cities where we work and the people whom we feature, we should also have acknowledged the unquestionable animal cruelty behind bullfighting and the work of countless local animal rights activists trying to end the practice.
Mexico City“Do you want fat on those?” At Quesadillas La Chaparrita in Mercado Jamaica, the correct answer is always yes. At the nod of our heads, the young woman manning the grill splashes a little melted lard onto each of our quesadillas with her spatula and slides them over into the hot center of the concave…
OaxacaOaxaca’s street food scene has surprises for us every day of the week. From breakfast to lunch, we can find plenty of stalls with a plethora of options: eggs, tamales, tortas, tacos, hot drinks, juices and more. However, when sunset bathes the streets of the historic center, most of these stalls are disassembled into heaps…
Mexico CityDuring the dry season in Mexico’s Mixtec highlands, when it’s windy, bugs called chinches (or jumiles in other regions) are ready to be collected from the epiphytic bromeliads – dramatic plants that grow on trees or other plants – where they live. “Children climb the trees, grab the epiphyte, bring it down to the ground and…