The Tamale Maker of Tejon Street

For decades, Paul Sandoval has been a mentor, friend, and adviser to virtually every Denver Democrat (and more than a few Republicans). Here, an oral history of his rise from local activist to political kingmaker. 

September 30 2011, 12:33 PM

The Businessman

While in the state Senate, Sandoval started his first tamale restaurant, La Casa de Tamales, using the deal-making skills he’d honed in politics to grow his business.

Paul: I got into the tamale business with my ex-wife, Mary Helen, when I first got elected to the Legislature, because I wanted a job where I didn’t have to be working for the state or the city. After I got divorced, I kept the business for a while but finally sold it. After Paula and I married, we reopened in 1990 [as La Casita].

Gallagher: The final day of the session, we would always have a picnic lunch. Paul provided the tamales—it was his mom’s recipe.

John Salazar: I remember the great food he’d send over to the Capitol every now and then. I got to enjoy his tamales and his enchiladas. Every holiday, somehow or another, a box or two of his fresh tamales would end up on Salazar Ranch for our dinner.

Mike Dino, Democratic strategist: As a young campaign person, what I was excited about was that Paul always brought food—tamales and burritos. Or if I’d go to see him, I’d go home with a dozen tamales.

Paula Sandoval, former state senator and Paul’s wife: When we first started, he was the only employee. He cooked, waited on customers. The first year he got called to jury duty and got a two-week murder trial, and I had to take two weeks off to manage the shop.

Valdez: During one Democratic convention here, whenever the delegates took a break, Paul would go outside and sell them tamales from the back of his van.

Amanda Sandoval-Encinas, Paul’s daughter: I grew up going to the shop. On Christmas break, I had to wash the outside of the corn husks or sweep the parking lots. It’s been a staple in my life.

Lynea Hansen, Democratic political consultant: When it comes to business, he’s ruthless. I love guacamole, and they finally started serving it, but only on weekends. I said, “C’mon, serve it during the week,” and he said, “No, avocados are expensive.” But since I’ve known them, I don’t know that they’ve ever raised their prices.

Amanda: As a businessman, he does not mess around. If he sees something he doesn’t like at the restaurant, you will be the first to know.

Paula: We always want families to be able to have a nice meal. We don’t have as big as a profit margin as we could have because we want people to enjoy a night out.

Paul: Paula’s approach and mine are very similar: You try to keep offering good Mexican food at a decent price, you treat your employees well, and you’re honest with your customers and purveyors.

Hansen: In his office are these rings of corn husks. Paul told me he uses them to select the best corn husks for his tamales. The quality was incredibly important to him.

Amanda: He just has this knack for figuring out things in business. He’ll think this week is going to be busy, or this week is not, and he’s about 96 percent accurate.

Hansen: They now sell their tamales through Whole Foods. And the Department of Corrections is a client. The business has grown by leaps and bounds, and that’s probably one of the things he’s most proud of. If you ask him who he is or what he does, he’ll say, “I make tamales for a living.”

Webb: Once I wrangled an invitation for him to the White House. I didn’t know what to put down for his occupation. I was going to put businessman, but I called Paul and he said, “Put down tamale salesman.” The White House person called to ask me about it, and I said, “Well, he does sell millions of tamales.”

R.D. Sewald, deputy director of legislative services for Governor John Hickenlooper: Before Paul’s restaurants really started taking off, I took Michael Bennet up there when he was chief of staff for Mayor Hickenlooper. As only Bennet would do, he said, “So, you just sell tamales?” Paul said, “Well, I sell a little bit of tamales.” Michael said, “A little bit?” Paul said, “Well, I also do wholesale.” Bennet got up from his chair, went into the restaurant, looked at how much a dozen cost, and came back in. Paul told him roughly how many dozens of tamales he sold. Bennet, as quick and as smart as he is, did the math, sat back in his chair, and said, “That’s a lot of tamales.” Paul got the biggest grin and said, “I’m just a tamale maker, that’s all.”