1,000 Tamales



Photographer Scott Peterson was more than a little enthusiastic when we called him to document the great Christmas tamale-making operation at Cactus Taquería last December.

“I didn’t know Cactus made tamales,” he said, eyes wide and stomach rumbling.

As we wedged ourselves into the tiny storeroom behind the main Cactus kitchen in Oakland, we felt like a couple of tamales ourselves as we watched three magically efficient line cooks assemble tamale after tamale after tamale, wedging them all into the steamer pots.

“We make more than 1,000 tamales in this month,” said José Verdin, who has managed Cactus for 30 years. “Tamales are a traditional Christmas dinner in Mexico, and many of our customers in Rockridge and Berkeley have come to depend on us to get their holiday tamales.”

A delicious spicy aroma wafted through the room as the cooks spooned mole negro (black mole) over masa on green banana leaves. Verdin listed the ingredients: ancho, negro, and chipotle chiles; sesame seeds; coriander; almonds; raisins; onions; garlic; tomatoes; chocolate; ground black pepper; clove; chicken stock; sugar; and crumbled corn chips combined with turkey meat. Akin to the first tamales made at the Cactus kitchen 22 years ago, these tamales trace their origin to a traditional recipe from Guerrero.

“Our recipes are derived from different home recipes from the staff, but using our high-quality ingredients and proteins, as well as our signature Cactus salsas and moles,” said Verdin. “Over the years, Cactus has worked on getting the right combination of flavors.”

Cactus cooks come from diverse locations around Latin America, but as nearly all of them are men, they rarely arrive with much home cooking experience.

“At home, women do the cooking, so our cooks learn here from each other,” Verdin said.

As our photographer packed up his gear, he also tucked in some of the goods to share with his family in Alameda. The tamales will be easy to heat up while he plays banjo in the backyard for the dog and the chickens as practice for his next gig with his band, Chickens on Wood. Scott was happy to have learned that he won’t have to wait a year to get more tamales, as Verdin had let him in on a secret:

If you want Cactus tamales at a time other than Christmas, just say “tamales please” at the counter and plan to order at least a dozen.

Learn more about photographer Scott Peterson at scottpetersonproductions.com.

Find Cactus Taquería at 5642 College Avenue in Oakland, 1881 Solano Avenue in Berkeley, or online at cactustaqueria.com.