It was a place run by and for families. The food was simple and good, served by a procession of recently relocated young Mexicans, and the owners, first an older couple and then their granddaughter and her Anglo husband, were friendly folks who came around to ask if everything was fine, and lingered to chat.
We felt like we were part of the family.
Then about three years ago a developer swooped in, bought the building, surrounding businesses and apartments, and built a subdivision. El Matador disappeared.
Now it has resurfaced, far across town near Brandermill, with a new name, and a building specifically designed for it. The food remains the same, so even though it now costs us $2.50 in tolls, it's still our favorite Mexican spot.
Owners Tabitha and Ryan Pierce (she's the granddaughter) built and designed the place from scratch, literally constructing the booths, painting the walls and ceiling, and laying the tile floor.
The result lifts the Hot Tamale a notch above most of its competitors.
The walls are painted in subdued shades of red, gold, green and purple, punctuated with ersatz window frames, a corral fence complete with wooden cowboy and a mural painted by one of the servers, an art student at the Governor's School.
Metal lamps extend from the ceilings to just over the booths that line three walls of the main dining room. There are tables in the center for large parties. There is a deck of cards at each table, but the service is so good that there is little time to play before the food arrives.
The menu has changed a bit from the old place. It now has more of a Southwestern touch that suits a customer base that is more suburban and white than the regulars at El Matador, which sat in the middle of a Hispanic enclave. From appetizers to dessert, nearly all of the food at Hot Tamale is made from scratch. A kitchen team headed by a Salvadoran, assisted by a couple of young Mexicans, are busy all day making salsas, guacamole, pico de gallo, tacos, burritos, tamales, tortillas, flan and chocolate chimis.
The large menu includes seven courses from the grill, and on our most recent visit, we tried the pork and red snapper. The pork, or carnitas ($8.75), cooked with cilantro and onion, was moist and tasty, served with tortillas, pico de gallo and a mango salsa that is one of the hits of the house. The 10-ounce snapper ($9.95) needed something other than a chilpotle pepper rub to lift it beyond the ordinary. In the past, I had enjoyed the large portion of spicy shrimp, at $10.95 the most expensive item on the menu, which is served over rice.
But who goes to a Mexican restaurants for gourmet fare? We usually stick to the enchiladas, tacos, burritos and quesadillas, which are offered in a variety of combinations featuring beef, pork and chicken, accompanied by charro beans (black beans on request) and Southwestern rice.
Because every meal begins with salsa and chips and is followed by a large main portion, we usually pass on the appetizers and desserts, but the redskin poppers ($5.25), a mix of jalapeno and cream cheese dipped in batter and fried crispy, are delicious. The guacamole dip ($2.50), though, was bland until I mixed it with rice.
For the finale, we had the flan ($2.50), an egg custard floating in caramel sauce, and fried ice cream ($2.95), a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream dipped in sweet honey and covered with crunchy corn flakes, sugar and spices, sitting on a lightly fried, floured tortilla. Both are excellent.
Our visits to The Hot Tamale usually include a half-carafe of Yago sangria ($7.95), which despite lacking fresh fruit, suits our taste just right.
Although he is not a drinker, Ryan Pierce is building a selection of tequilas, for sipping or mixing, to add to other bar favorites, such as margaritas, daiquiris and eight Mexican beers.
There is a special kids menu (most selections are $3.25), which accounts for the large number of families with children, who add noise and life to the 90-seat dining room. A family of four can get stuffed for $20 to $25, plus drinks, tax and tip.
Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d', and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. S
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