Hold the Parchment
More troublesome still, Pilar's steams its tamales in parchment paper and foil instead of the traditional Salvadoran banana leaves. While not unheard of, it's an expediency that undermines the whole tamale concept. I consulted food writer Claudia Alarcon--who's writing a book about the history of tamales--for her opinion of the practice. "I have never seen them on parchment," Alarcon told me. "I am sure that's out of convenience."
Salvadoran tamales tend to be a bit creamier than Mexican tamales, which are wrapped in less porous corn husks. Still, a banana leaf provides plenty of protection for the masa, which would otherwise deteriorate into a custardy, flavorless mush. That was the very problem afflicting all the tamales I sampled at Pilar's.
In some cases, the stuffing was quite good. Pilar's changing menu includes a dozen different tamales, both sweet and savory. The best varieties strike both notes: I especially liked a turkey tamale featuring rich dark meat and syrupy prunes. A strictly traditional tamale de puerco, made with well-seasoned pork, bits of green olives, and chunks of potatoes, was equally impressive.
But few of the stuffings could stand up to the spongy masa. A counterwoman plugged the black bean tamales as "ooey, gooey goodness," but the mud puddle-gray concoction was well beyond my ooh-and-goo threshold, even without any detectable cheese. There was plenty of vividly orange cheese in my jalapeno-cheese tamale; this time, though, the promised peppers were aggravatingly omitted.