Everything at Tamalittle, a new west Little Rock tamale joint, is little, from the space to the menu selections to the prices.
Everything except the flavor.
Tucked away on Markham Park Drive, off of West Markham Street, the eatery is easy to miss. It's in the former and short-lived Take & Bake Pizza Cafe, next to Planet Smoothie in the busy McDonald's/KFC/Goodwill/Outback Steakhouse corridor.
Tamalittle serves two things: tamales and pastes (pronounced "past-tehs" and similar to empanadas). Want lunch/dinner? There are savory tamales and pastes. Want dessert? There are sweet tamales and pastes. But, that's it -- tamales and pastes. And a few sides.
There are no starters (a Mexican restaurant in Arkansas with no cheese dip? Is that even legal?), aside from a meager stack of round chips -- we'd generously guess eight -- served with one smoky red salsa and two kinds of salsa verde, one tart and one mild, heavy on the cilantro.
We probably could have asked for more chips during our one dine-in visit, but we saved our appetites for meals. No chips were included in our one to-go order, just three small condiment cups of salsa.
The restaurant is a cheery, serviceable setting with a black-and-white tiled floor and walls that are not only yellow and coral but stenciled. Walls and even some windows wear tourism posters and maps. There are a handful of tables (though most had dirty dishes on them when we arrived) at which customers can have meals served on cute Mexican dishes. Or there's a handy drive-through window for retrieving call-ahead orders (our one carryout order was ready in 10 minutes, nicely packaged and labeled).
Tamales of billowy corn masa and assorted fillings, swaddled in corn husks or banana leaves, are $1.99 and available in five savory varieties. They're available in combos: two tamales/two sides ($4.99) and three tamales/two sides ($6.49). They are also sold by the dozen ($19.90).
Filled and baked flour pastries, pastes (from the menu: "small empanada-like pastries," but "Unlike empanadas, Paste fillings are not cooked before they are wrapped in the pastry") are $2.49 and come in eight savory varieties. They, too, are available in combos: two pastes/two sides ($5.99) and three pastes/two sides ($7.99). They are also sold by the dozen ($24.90).
We much preferred the moist -- and more moderately priced -- tamales to the somewhat dry pastes.
Of the tamales, we especially liked the vibrant Verde (chicken and green tomatillo sauce), the tasty Tradicional (chicken with red mole) and the perky vegetarian Poblano (corn, pepper strips, mozzarella). But the filling texture of the vegetarian Mexicano (tomatoes, green peppers, onions, mozzarella, epazote leaves), which we refrigerated and then microwaved for lunch the next day, left us a bit perplexed. What was so chewy? Was it the cheese? We're sure we'd have been happier with the hot, fresh product.
We were intrigued by one banana-leaf-bundled Oaxaqueno tamale (choice of pork or chicken in red mole sauce; we selected pork), which was bolder in flavor and appearance. The softer masa took on a polenta consistency.
As for the pastes, the friend who ordered two -- the Tinga (shredded chicken breast, spicy tomatoes, onions, chipotle peppers, thyme) and the Hawaiano (ham, pineapple, mozzarella, cheddar) -- described them this way: "The Tinga had good flavors, but not quite enough filling to match the density of the dough. The Hawaino was ... odd, as I expected it would be. Sort of like a homemade Hot Pocket. No spice, just cheese, chopped ham and pineapple in dough. Not bad, but maybe something a kid would like."
On our second visit, we shared three pastes -- the Minero (nicely spiced mix of beef, potatoes and parsley), Chorizo (a mealy blend of sausage, red beans and onions) and the Cochinita (zesty shredded pork and axiote spice). All of the pastries were a bit parched for our liking. We would have preferred a sauce or chili topping -- or some of that non-existent cheese dip.
As for sides (75 cents if sold separately), there is fluffy Mexican rice, pasty black beans, a house salad (iceberg, onions, radishes) and a freshly-grated carrot/jicama salad that could use a little citrus, salt, or both.
Beverages include bottled Coke products ($1.80) or Jarritos Mexican fruit sodas and apple juice (both 99 cents). Maybe when its not upward of 90 degrees outside, we'll be more tempted to try Tamalittle's Atole (99 cents-$2.49), a hot beverage made with milk, cooked rice, chocolate and coffee.
For dessert, we sampled one sweet tamale ($2.29 for one/$22.99 per dozen), the Uchepo, and one sweet paste ($2.79 for one/$27.90 per dozen), the Fresa.
The corn-leaf wrapped Uchepo, a concoction of sweet corn, pecans and milk, sounded strange but blended agreeably. It reminded us of a very sweet cornbread. Or maybe like banana bread if it was made of corn.
The Fresa was a warm pastry of strawberries and cream cheese, served with a dollop of whipped cream. Said the friend who earlier made the Hot Pockets remark: "Again, my comparison, but it reminded me of a homemade Hostess Fruit Pie." This one she meant as a supreme compliment.
Weekend on 07/03/2014
Print Headline: Tamales star at Tamalittle