When chef Cesar Tamariz designed the new winter menu at Kachina Cantina, tamales were a must. The native of Veracruz, Mexico, grew up making tamales—as well as pozole, mole, and other hallmark dishes—with his grandmother, and now takes pride in transitioning the nearly three-year-old Dairy Block restaurant’s offerings to feature more traditional dishes from his homeland. (If you visit Kachina primarily for its tasty Navajo fry-bread tacos, don’t fret; they’re not going anywhere). 

Tamariz’s tamales are particularly special, and only available for the remainder of this month. I recently had the opportunity to attend a tamale-making class with the chef (formerly of the Post Brewing Co., Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, and St. Julien Hotel and Spa in Boulder), to learn the ins and outs of what makes the holiday-time staple so delicious.

Freshly steamed tamales at Kachina Cantina. Photo by Katie Ketchum

While sipping on glasses of house-made tepache (a cinnamon-infused fermented pineapple drink), we students learned the basics, according to Tamariz: Lard or shortening is used to flavor the masa dough; hot water or chicken stock binds the dough together; and burnt tortillas can be mixed in to add a gentle bitterness. 

But the most important element is, of course, the masa. Tamariz’s goal is to season it well enough that the filling is just a bonus—since tamales can, and often are, enjoyed exclusively for the masa dough. Nevertheless, during the class, we stuffed our tamales in order to understand the full process. Vegetarians worked with a filling of poblano chiles, onion, garlic, and roasted corn in a white wine and cream cheese sauce, while carnivores used a chorizo and asadero cheese filling. We learned how to rehydrate the corn husks that would encase the tamales during steaming, and assemble the tidy packets. 

While our tamales steamed, we tucked into another new menu item: chicken pozole rojo garnished with cabbage, radish, lime, and avocado, the perfect warmer for a chilly day. And then, our tamales were ready—and well worth our efforts. In addition to the aforementioned fillings, which were delicious, we also tried Tamariz’s Veracruz-style tamal ranchero, stuffed with tender pork shoulder and dressed in a smoky-sweet mulato chile sauce and the simpler yet equally tasty tamal verde, containing a savory mix of chicken, tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, and crema. In each iteration, the masa truly did shine.

If you go: Kachina Cantina’s winter menu is available now through March 2020; 1890 Wazee St.