Enjoying tamales is a food tradition that dates all the way back to pre-Colombian, Mesoamerican civilizations. It persists in Latino communities today as a cultural touchstone, and a way to bring families together—especially during the holidays. As a Midwesterner, it’s a Christmas pastime that eluded me until I moved to Los Angeles in 1995, and later Austin. Now, as an honorary Texan, it’s found a permanent place at my house, even though—being a family of three—we always end up with an inordinate amount of leftovers. Better than freezing them for a later date, or throwing an egg on top of some tamales in the morning, is taking advantage of a burger trend that can now be found at restaurants as far west as Bakersfield, CA, all the way across the country to New York City.
At first glance, the idea of a tamale on top of a burger might sound unusual or even extreme. But after trying a cheese enchilada topped cheeseburger I knew this budding subgenre of Tex-Mex topped burgers isn’t an anomaly—but rather Texas’ contribution to an exciting new chapter in the category’s history. Not only that, but the dish also has some culinary precedence. Across the border in Mexico City, you’ll find guajolota, the street food favorite that sandwiches a tamal between two pieces of bolillo bread.
That was the inspiration for Mariha Richmond of La Plancha in Austin. At the chef’s East Side shop, tortas are her focus of her menu, but she’s also begun dabbling in the kind of backyard torta burgers she grew up eating in Brownsville. In her hometown, bolillo rolls were less expensive than regular Bimbo burger buns from the grocery store, so her family essentially made torta-burger hybrids swiped with refried beans along with layers of ham, guacamole, and cheese.
“Growing up on both sides of the border, I think my culture and families like mine merge cultures in food. So, the burger to me is an example of that,” she says.
Introduced on their December menu, La Plancha’s tamale burger starts with two 3-ounce patties of Angus beef from 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas. Like all her tortas, Richmond utilizes a bolillo roll from Kraftsmen Baking out of Houston. The patties are shaped like an oval, which better fits the baguette-like bread. From there the chef gets more irreverent with the toppings like guacamole, tomatillo salsa, thinly sliced smoked ham, shredded Romaine lettuce, a tamale, and a layer of fried Oaxacan cheese mixed with sharp cheddar (what’s called a “costra”).
When choosing a tamale, Richmond says the most important consideration is the masa shrouding the filling—regardless if it’s bean, barbacoa, or rajas (strips of poblano peppers that have been blistered on the plancha along with chunks of white onion) inside. For her, the right masa base is heirloom blue corn from Barton Springs Mill in Austin. “It’s more earthy and the corn flavor is not as sweet, so it balances out the flavors of all the other components” she says.
While some tamale burgers opt for a carnivorous filling, Richmond’s choice of rajas—specifically the slightly sweet charred poblano pepper—accentuate the earthiness of the masa. Despite the bolder elements of the angus beef, smoky seared ham, and dueling layers of fat from the costra and guacamole, you can really taste the blue corn—which is really what makes this tamale burger standout.
True to the spirit of the holidays, the tamale burger strikes you like a gut-busting family feast. Good chefs rise above simple gluttony, though, as they create new and worthy indulgences. Because Richmond grew up eating torta burgers made by her grandmother, there is an obvious mixture of love and tradition in the final product. There’s also a sense of place, most notably in the use of local heirloom corn and 44 Farms beef. It’s a reminder that wherever we break bread amongst family and friends during the holidays—that place also has links to the bread itself. And few things say you’re in Texas more than a bolillo bun, and an extra helping of carbs courtesy of some leftover tamales.