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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 

Eating out: Hot Tamale

Somewhere in the middle of China, there must be a factory that churns out tchotchkes for Mexican restaurants: lookalike sombreros, maracas and serape blankets seem to be practically an obligation in these places. But Hot Tamale in downtown Fairbanks is refreshingly lacking in the same old knickknacks. Instead, old cacti and hand-painted tiles adorn its many nooks and alcoves, and the sound system offers Spanish rhythms instead of Top 40. And, much like the authentic décor, the food at Hot Tamale seems to come from old family recipes rather than a corporate cookbook.

We popped into Hot Tamale for dinner recently and found the place full of mushers and spectators from the GCI Open North American dog sled races, taking place just across the Chena River. Settling into an alcove, I noticed a drink special for 50-cent margaritas. Even the waiter grimaced as he said they were made with strawberry wine, so we ordered our usual cheap drinks: 50-cent Tecate Cervezas. My boyfriend Tom attacked the dinner buffet ($10.95), while I opted to order up a variety of tacos, including potato ($2), fish ($3.50) and carne asada ($2.50).

In his first run on the buffet, Tom came back with a mixed plate. The enchiladas looked tasty but had a corn flavor that overwhelmed the filling. “It's got that 'sitting under a heat lamp' issue,” Tom also noted. Sitting under those lamps may have been what intensified the corn flavor. The burrito, wrapped in an achingly tender flour tortilla, was a hit. The chicken was lightly seasoned, and the onions were cooked until they were just soft but still had bite.

Even though I had ordered my tacos individually off the “side dishes” section of the menu, they arrived artfully displayed on a large platter with chili peppers and a twist of lemon. More impressive to me, though, was the cilantro. I am not a cilantro fan, and I cringe when restaurants toss handfuls of the stuff over perfectly good dishes; fortunately, at Hot Tamale the tacos only had a delicate sprinkle of the fresh herb. It is also worth noting that while the potato taco came with just one tortilla, the carne asada and fish each had two, and there were ample fillings to top them off: five tacos for the price of three!

The lettuce and cheese were still cool and crisp, contrasting with the warm potatoes. Unfortunately, while I had hoped that the potatoes would be like good home fries - cubed, spicy and crispy - I found them mushy and bland. I moved on to the carne asada, and wasn't disappointed by the spicy grilled steak. The seasoned meat would have been a pleasure to eat on its own, but still stood out while wrapped up in a tortilla and toppings. We occasionally eat fried halibut tacos at home, but I dislike the effort required to fry the fish. Hot Tamale served up halibut with a discernible batter flavor that did not overpower the mild fish taste. Although I found myself missing the array of toppings we usually add, the fish taco was still flavorful, and the second tortilla soon succumbed to the pressure of the fillings.

In his second raid on the buffet, Tom came back with a beef and bean chimichanga. The silky filling was mostly shredded beef with a bean puree, and the chimichanga was crisp. Also on his plate was a mixture of halibut, shrimp and spinach in a creamy cheese sauce. I'm not sure if it was meant as a taco filling, but it was heavenly just to dip bits of tortilla in the concoction. “It's almost too rich for a meal,” Tom noted.

Rather than order desserts, Tom decided to make one last attack on the buffet, coming back with a plate full of sweets. The chocolate cake was run-of-the-mill, but the brownie was dense, fudgy and slightly bittersweet. The fried tortillas with blueberry topping looked fantastic, but there was something about the dish I couldn't quite put my finger on. The tortilla was light and crispy with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar, but the topping was a little off - the slight lemon flavor made me suspect it came from a can.

I returned to Hot Tamale the following week for lunch with my friend, James. Our eyes proved bigger than our stomachs as we ordered: pozole soup ($6.95), halibut quesadillas ($7.95) and the daily special ($8.95), a large platter with a beef taco, chicken enchilada, tamale, rice and beans. Every meal at Hot Tamale begins with warm tortilla chips and salsa, which helped to fill us up before our food arrived.

My pozole soup came to the table in a massive bowl. The oily broth had a smoky, tomato flavor, and was mildly spicy. Bits of chewy hominy filled the bowl, surrounding the tender pork chunks. The soup would have been a meal on its own.

The quesadillas were simple: tortilla, cheese and halibut. That combination may have worked well with a different meat, but the halibut was too mild, and the quesadillas tasted bland as a result. Topping them with guacamole, salsa or chilis helped ratchet up the flavor.

James hunkered down over his plate and barely let me get a fork in. I did steal a bite of his enchilada, and found it much better than what Tom found at the dinner buffet. The strong corn flavor was still present, but the beef was savory and the enchilada tasted fresh. “For north of the 45th parallel, this isn't bad,” James said as he devoured his food.

In a town with many Mexican options, Hot Tamale offers good food with some unusual twists. The use of halibut, for example, tips its hat to the Alaska setting, though it falls short at times. But for basic Mexican fare at reasonable prices in a great location (plus really cheap beer), it's hard to beat Hot Tamale.

Review published in the Anchorage Press