I’ll admit it. I don’t love tamales. I do love the idea of tamales. Believe me, the first time I was at a hipster bar in Chicago’s Bucktown and a Mexican woman walked in carrying a cooler full of hot masa dough surprises, I was first in line, lack of FDA-oversight be damned.
But the reality of the meal never lives up to my expectations. Masa, the dough that comprises a tamale, is by nature bland—it’s just corn flour, water, a touch of oil or fat, and seasonings—so the ingredients used to fill the mixture have to carry the team. And if I suspect even for a second that my tamale purveyor has pushed the dough-to-filling ratio too high, it’s hasta la vista, baby.
So when I heard about the popularity of the chicken and cheese tamales at Eppie’s on the Downtown Mall, I was intrigued, if not inspired. What made people line up for these things week after week? What were they doing on the menu in the first place?
It turns out if you want the story of Eppie’s tamales, you’ve got some work to do. Dan Epstein, who owns the joint with his brother, is one busy dude. He works a full-time job in addition to running the restaurant. He has a young daughter and a second kid on the way. He seems to be in meetings constantly. As for Epstein’s brother Charles, he’s a silent partner in the business. And “silent partner” isn’t just a clever name.
Then there’s Ana, the private chef who worked full-time at Eppie’s years ago but now comes in only two or three days a week to make the tamales. It’s easy enough to find her—she preps ingredients every Monday afternoon behind the Eppie’s counter and mixes dough and fills cornhusks every Tuesday. But she’s shy and speaks almost no English, so for a non-Spanish speaker like me, communicating with her is like taking a test to see how much awkwardness you can handle.
Fortunately, another Eppie’s employee offered to translate last Tuesday afternoon when I asked Ana about her signature dish. He said Ana told him the tamale recipe was her grandmother’s, and I can confirm hearing something that sounded like “abuela.” Beyond that, Ana wasn’t giving away too many tamale secrets, but she did say her dough includes minced jalapeños, tomatoes, and onion. As for the mole that goes in the chicken tamales? It’s “a lot of ingredients,” according to my faithful translator.
Epstein, who took a break from running around like a one-armed biscuit maker to save me from embarrassing myself in front of Ana, shed a little more light on Charlottesville’s best known tamales. When Eppie’s opened, he knew he wanted to do daily specials to give people a reason to come in every day of the week. It was an idea he borrowed from a deli in D.C. that drew long lines for its “meatloaf Thursdays.” The only question was what kind of dishes Eppie’s would feature.
“The tamales were a suggestion of Ana’s,” Epstein said. “She made them for herself one day and brought them in. She said Eppie’s should serve tamales, and I was like, yeah, if you want to make them, let’s try ’em.”
It turned out to be a good decision. Despite the tamales being a bit of an outlier on the menu, they’re probably the most popular special, Epstein said.
“How do I measure that? The amount of wrath I would feel from the customers if we said, ‘no tamales,’” he said.
Unfortunately, “no tamales” is something Eppie’s has to say from time to time; when something that takes three days to make runs out, there’s no making more.
The whole process starts by soaking the corn husks that hold the tamales in place during cooking, and slow simmering chocolate, cinnamon, roasted nuts, chili peppers, and even some animal crackers for the mole.
“When Ana first gave me the list of ingredients for the mole, I was like, huh?” Epstein said.
Next, Ana slices the onions, deseeds the jalapeños, and prepares a bowl of cheddar to assemble the vegetarian option. Once she’s cooked the chicken directly in the mole and mixed the dough, she wraps everything up in a tasty little package. By the end of the day each Tuesday, the whole batch of chicken and cheese tamales is stacked in a pan, placed in a fridge to cool, and ready to be steamed for 30-45 minutes the next day. Epstein said his line cooks have started doing one batch in the morning for lunch and another in the afternoon so the dinner crowd isn’t disappointed.
The question is, can Eppie’s keep us tamale skeptics from being disappointed? I wouldn’t call myself a full convert, but there’s a lot to enjoy in the effort. The cheese version is slightly more interesting for someone who doesn’t love masa dough itself, as the crunch of the veggies takes away from the density of the dish. The chicken tamales come across a bit plain, but a side of the intense mole, with its smokiness and nuanced sweetness, gives them a boost. Don’t go overboard with the sauce, though; it’s flavorful enough to drown out the rest of your meal. If you’re into heat, reach for the Cholula or Sriracha on every table at Eppie’s to bring it. The jalapeños in the cheese tamales are completely neutered by deseeding, and the mole is mild.
One might wonder why a restaurant that primarily excels at southern comfort food—perfectly roasted chicken, ham “biscuits” (country ham on pumpkin bread), and downhome sides like collard greens and mashed potatoes—would even mess with a Mexican standard like the tamale. Epstein just shrugs.
“It doesn’t really fit,” he admitted. “If we struggle with anything, it’s answering the question, ‘What kind of restaurant are we?’ It’s not that we have something for everyone, but we do have a lot of good stuff.”