by Tom Sims
Enjoy the next Healthy Eating In The Valley column. Let us know what you think and if you have any suggestions of your own for us to check out! In future articles watch for some articles on local places to eat healthy.
Don’t just ask what makes Liz Sanchez of Casa de Tamales tick. That would be the wrong question. She doesn’t just tick; she pulsates with passion! It is the same passion when she talks about tamales, business, her family, her staff-family, her customers and her philosophy of giving back to the community. She does not separate her business from her life. It is one package with common interests.
“Traditional and gourmet” is how her tamales are described. She has both and she blends them on occasion to create something old and new.
I first became acquainted with her creations and her presence at a cart hop. Then, I started seeing her all over and was surprised to discover that she had been operating a restaurant in town for four years. In fact, she has been working in restaurants and food service for 15 years.
Serving Mexican food is in her blood. Her uncle used to run taquerías in Fresno’s Chinatown. Her mother and grandmother taught her wonderful recipes that she has continued to develop. People ask, “Why are tamales only done during the holiday season?”
“You need an army to make them,” she replies and the holidays are when the army arrives. Sometimes, the family works all night assembling the treasures for breakfast the next morning.”I think tamales are very personal. There’s a lot of feelings of people and family memories that people cherish.”
“I remember” stories gather around the flavors and textures. They are close to the heart. Yet, for something so delicious, serving tamales can be challenging as a business. Some people won’t try because of comparisons such as ‘like my mom or grandma made them like this or like that.’ That part of the market, normally just needs to be coaxed into taking a taste and there is a part of the market of people who did not have these experiences growing up with the taste-traditions of the masa delicacy. There is also the gluten free market and tamales are well positioned to address that.
People have to learn to think differently. Liz has a large variety of vegan and vegetarian selections. All the rice, beans and sauces are vegan. Her mother did not use lard for beans and rice. Historically, that is the way it was done.
According the Katie Walker, in an Austin Post article, January 12, 2010, “Tamales can be traced back to as early as 7000 B.C. in Pre-Columbian history, when the Aztec women were taken along in battle as cooks for the army. There was a need to have a more portable yet sustainable food and the tamales could be made ahead of time, packed and warmed as needed.”
In Nicaragua, a tamale is called a “nacatamal” in Guatemala, “paches and chuchitos.” In Bolivia and Ecuador, it is named, “humita,” and in Columbia, “bollo.” There are several more names, but in the USA, it is simply called, “mouthwatering.”
At the heart of the matter is the masa, the basis for the tamale and the tortilla. They were just corn and water. Liz’s grandmother had tortilla factories in La Piedad de Cabadas, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. She even cooked her beans in water and added salt. That was it, and they tasted great! It was simple elegance.
As we said, the business is in her blood. Liz watched her uncle build his businesses and began to realize that growing a business is one thing, but sustaining a business is another. So, she went to San Francisco and began to learn the business as a server, bartender, and a hostess. By the age of 21, she was a manager, moved to Manhattan to manage the Times Square Chevys and finally became operations managers for all the Chevys the Bay Area and a national trainer.
She learned from books, observation, and mentors such as Mark, Peter, and Chuck at Chevys. She also learned her trade by working with and watching culinary chefs. One of these was a CEO who was a “real developer.” Menu design was a big deal in that environment and it is for her today. “After Chevys and four to five years in another company, it was time to move home and “try my own thing.”
She develops her own recipes and tests them on employees, friends, family, and sometimes, lucky customers. As we talked, I was having the time-tested portabella and asparagus tamale with a hint of potatoes and a homemade guacamole sauce on the side.
Long term business is about building lasting relationships and projecting into the future. I was enjoying the conversation and the relationship building when there was a joyous interruption. Something exciting was happening, and I was invited into the kitchen to witness the making of masa.
The formula is deceptively simple: soak-cook-soak-rinse-grind-mix with water, salt, and a hint of baking soda and you have it.
“All our tamales are handmade, and our stone-ground masa (corn dough) is made in-house from locally-grown non-GMO corn, stone-ground right in our establishment with our very own corn mill,” says Liz.
What’s in the works?
Liz, with her husband and business partner, are developing a concept called “Absolutely Tapas” and other projects in their infancy mode. It is a different menu, but the same quality and spirit. “Tapas” is a Spanish word for “small plate” or essentially, “appetizers.”
On Friday nights, “Absolutely Tapas” can be discovered at the Gazebo Gardens.
Liz has a well-developed website with much of her history and philosophy and communicates extensively on Facebook with announcements and special offers. It is part of the relationship-building strategy.
From a recent FB post: “Don’t forget…The Gazebo Gardens Nursery Party now starts on Friday! An ABSOLUTE blast paired perfectly with our ABSOLUTELY TAPAS! From 5-9 p.m. TONIGHT we’re featuring Sonoma Valley mini quesadillas–parmesan crusted tortillas filled with brie & mozzarella cheese, green apples, bacon and jalapeno jelly! Goes great with our kiwi lemonade sparkler.”
Giving back is a major theme for Liz. She believes it is essential for any venture that desires to develop a sustainable business. “The community is who votes and keeps you in business. It is about relationships you build in the long term,” she explains. All of that figures into her way of giving back which she does generously and frequently.
Recently, a 16 year old job applicant asked her how she saw herself and her business in five years. Liz was impressed and delighted at the question and outlined the answer:
1) Working a little smarter. (No “hands off the wheel.”)
2) To be financially in a better place and able to take care of her parents, repaying them for all they have done for her.
3) Giving back more through volunteering, coaching, and mentoring.
What motivates her desire to give back? She would say her support team including her husband. Fleshing this out, she envisions more storefronts and more trucks as well as branching into some retail markets with her products. The challenge is to mass produce while maintaining quality. She loves to watch and learn from “The Shark Tank.” It is so real and the advice is so sound. It helps people clarify and simplify their mission and strategy.
What would she most like for people to know about her?
“My business is very personal to me. There is no separation between me as a person and a business owner. You will get a high quality product and a high quality experience.”
Casa de Tamales Current Hours of Operation:
Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Friday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday & Monday, Closed
3747 W. Shaw Ave., Fresno, California 93711
Hours of operation are subject to change.
Food Booth at the following locations:
Tuesday 10 a.m.- 2 p.m., Friant and highway 41
Wednesday 3 p.m.- 6 p.m., Vineyard Farmers Market at Shaw and Blackstone
Thursday 10 a.m.- 2 p.m., Fulton Mall in front of the Fresno Brewing Company
Saturday 7 a.m.- 12 p.m., Vineyard Farmers Market at Shaw and Blackstone
Sunday 10 a.m.- 2 p.m., Bella Fruta on the corner of Shepard & Willow in Clovis