In Mexico City, a Tamale in a Torta Roll Is a Bland Masterpiece
Residents find comfort in a cheap street-food staple—the guajolota
As far as contemporary Mexico City breakfasts go, on the totem pole of deliciousness, the torta de tamal sits far below crema and cotija cheese-gobbed chilaquiles, liquid-yolked huevos rancheros, and suave tacos de canasta. The guajolota, as the torta de tamal is often called (“turkey” in Spanish), is the ubiquitous, un-fancy breakfast of the city. Its makeup is simple—a tamale in a torta roll—but its unfailing popularity may call for a bit of explanation. There are no toppings on a torta de tamal, no condiments to lubricate, nothing to gild the lily. It’s austere a breakfast as they come.
There is some debate among city residents that tortas de tamal can only be called guajolotas once they’re fried; all others are merely tortas de tamal. It’s served at temporary stands that bloom throughout the city at dawn, usually a folding card table draped in flowery oilcloth and an umbrella for shade. Most have large thermoses, the kind American football teams dump over teammates at the Super Bowl, but instead of neon sports drinks they are filled with atoles (hot, flavored corn drinks), or scalding water to be released into Styrofoam cups. Two spoonfuls of non-dairy powder and an ounce of soluble brown crystals, stirred into a rusty cream-colored liquid; this is what the populace drinks as their morning beverage. It’s coffee.
Next to the tables are metal steamers, tamaleras the size of trash cans fitted with three compartments. When a guajolota is ordered, the operator opens a roll, a telera or bolillo, with a steak knife, reaches into the steamer for the requested type of tamale, then shake-shuffles it out of its wrapping into the waiting mouth of the roll. Then it’s wrapped in a piece of paper and handed over.
In the legion of indecorous, starch-on-starch regional staples—french fry po-boys, mac-and-cheese pizza, potato pierogis, San Diego burritos—the guajolota is as straightforward as they come. Depending on your favored style, the tamale may be crumbly and loose, like cornbread, or slick and compact cartridges of dense, finely ground corn, each with a bare ripple of filling: a sweetish wrapper-staining mole; tart salsa verde with a bare chunk of pork; braised chicken in salsa roja; rajas con queso that bristle with heat from roasted strips of jalapeño and planks of rubbery cheese; or a sweet tamale, dyed a luminous, unearthly pink.
So the city’s most popular breakfast is this? An unadorned tamale in a dry roll? What’s to like? That is exactly what I thought after eating my first guajolota when visiting the city. As a tourist, I was puzzled. Once I made Mexico City my home, after the newness of a strange place wore off and the rote patterns of daily life emerged, the nature of the torta de tamal became clearer to me.
First of all, it’s cheap as shit. Almost anyone can afford the 12 pesos the guajolota demands for a hot breakfast. It is filling, takes seconds to prepared, and it can be eaten on the run. It is made for the mornings when you wake feeling as though you’ve been dragged over hot coals by a blinding hangover, bad food poisoning, or the quagmire of heartbreak. A torta de tamal lays a caloric base that doesn’t rattle your soul or your palate. More than anything, it sturdies you from the inside out, teasing just enough flavor to get you to take another bite. It’s like a New Yorker’s buttered bagel. It’s milquetoast. White rice. You don’t have to think about it or contemplate how it could be better. You won’t need the hot sauce in your bag. It is what it is. Not just filler, but a pass to concern yourself with other necessities, existential or pressing reality.
These days I like to get a torta de tamal wrapped in paper, slipped into a plastic bag, and tucked into my purse for eating once I’ve arrived at my destination. The residual heat steams the bun along with the tamale, which I smash into a giant pellet of starch and gnaw away like a human-sized chipmunk working through an acorn. I’ve also taken a turn for the guajolota frita, in which the big blocks of tamale are capsized in sputtering oil, caramelizing in a long, slow fry that turns what was a soft, steamed dumpling into a crusty, frizzled, oil-saturated bullet. This lands in your stomach like a brick, and for those not performing eight hours of manual labor, requires an immediate nap.
Why is it called a turkey? A torpedo-shape tucked into an oblong roll looks kind of like a plump, squatting bird. But I like the alternative. What does a turkey say? “Gordo-gordo-gordo-gordo” which is exactly what you’ll be if you eat guajolotas regularly. And it’ll be worth it.
Scarlett Lindeman is a writer who splits her time between Mexico City and Brooklyn. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation about Mexican restaurants in NYC.