Juan Carlos Barajas grew up in the Coachella Valley in the 1990s. Indio International Tamale FestivalIt was an annual treat.
It was “the thing to do,” said the 41-year-old as we drove around town. “You went, you ate, you saw some music, then you’d go again the next year.”
Barajas joined his father in the restaurant business, where he worked as a waiter, a bartender and all other positions. Neither father nor son ever thought of entering the festival — they were workers, not restaurateurs. Barajas finally had the nerve to go for it in 2016. He convinced his parents that he would set up a stand and sell his creation, a tamale split open with birriade res in it’s middle.
“My parents were first all, ‘Tamales don’t come with birria. So no one’s going to want to buy them,’” he said with a laugh. “We show up, and we sold out almost immediately. We had to call my mom to make more tamales!”
Barajas and his dad were inspired by their success to start a food company. Today, they have a successful food business. Outside the MasaBirria tamales, and other products, are sold by a truck from Coachella to Palm Springs, farmers market to outside bars. They won the trophy for best tamale at last year’s Indio festival and will set up shop there again this weekend.
Outside the Masa isn’t eligible for the top prize, though. That’s because Barajas is the festival’s newly appointed culinary director. It’s his job to find the Coachella Valley’s next great tamale.
The city-run festival was founded in 1993 by a few vendors who set up tables downtown Indio. It is the largest tamale festival in the United States. People from all over the country will flock to the desert town Saturday and sunday to feast on tens and thousands of tamales boiled in steaming pots.
Unlike Indio’s other world-famous party, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, this masa madness matters far more to the day-to-day life of the region’s residents.
“Everyone comes back home, and you’re going to run into your teachers from high school and your friends from middle school,” said Indio Mayor pro tem Oscar Ortiz. “And all these mom and pops are just feeding us. If you were able to make it in the tamale festival, you can make it anywhere.”
Families can make enough money in a weekend to cover the entire year. After gaining a following, street sellers have opened their own restaurants. A win in the festival’s all-important contest earns bragging rights — and the chance to level up.
“What my family was able to gain through the tamale festival,” Barajas said, “I want others to get too.”
Barajas offered to take me to three. tamaleras that showcase the festival’s kingmaking potential. Casa de Silvia was the first stop. It is a small restaurant located on the same street as the inaugural tamale festival.
Silvia Rendon sold tamales for more than a decade in front of a Food 4 Less marketplace until she was forced to leave by city officials. In 2015, she and her family won the first prize at the tamale festival. They opened Casa de Silvia two years later.
“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” Rendon said. “I have no shame telling my story. I’m proud of it. I always tell people, ‘Sí, se puede.’”
Barajas and I forked through her tender red pork and cheese-jalapeño tamales slathered in a red salsa and dressed with crema fresca.
“These are just awesome — they’re probably the most famous tamales in the valley,” he said.
“There’s even other restaurants that have opened up that call themselves Silvia,” added Rendon’s son Isauro Jr. “I Guess it’s a validation of her hard work.”
Rendon smiled as we ate. That’s when I noticed atop a dessert case all the trophies she had won in previous Indio tamale festivals. I asked her how she felt about them. She extended her arms.
“Like a peacock!” Rendon exclaimed. “At the end of each festival, I always say I’m not going to do it next year. And then my husband says, ‘You’re going to feel different in an hour,’ and he’s always right.”
Next up: A food commissary, where Barajas parks the Outside the Masa truck. Toni Romero, who has volunteered at the tamale festival since the inaugural one, opened it in 2018 — the first commissary for food trucks in the Coachella Valley.
“You see people accomplish their dreams,” Romero said of the tamale festival, sitting at her desk. “And that motivates you to help others to make their own.”
One of her customers is Pupusas Guana Katracho’sA Salvadoran-Honduran food truck that Jorge and Mercedes Murillo operate. It reflects their home country’s cuisine. Though the two have lived in Desert Hot Springs for 15 years, they hadn’t heard about the tamale festival until organizers invited them last year.
“They told us to make 500 tamales, and I’m like, ‘Why so many? I’ll be stuck eating tamales for a full month,” Jorge cracked. “We were done by noon each day.”
This year, the Murillos plan to make 1,000 and debut a regional specialty: refried-bean tamales known as tamales pisque in Mercedes’ native El Salvador and tamal de viaje in Honduras, where Jorge is from.
Barajas unfolded the banana leaf that held Mercedes’ billowy, Salvadoran-style chicken tamale. He had never had one before.
“This is incredible,” Barajas said. “You don’t even need salsa for it.”
“Mexicans Always want chile,” Jorge playfully shot back. “But, well, Hondurans like their tamales with ketchup.”
Our final tamale was at the well-kept La Quinta home of José Luis Suarez. There, his 89-year-old mother, Maria del Refugio Juarez — known as Mama Cuca to her family and Doña Cuca to everyone else — was waiting for us with a platter of tamales traditionally from Sinaloa, Mexico. They are filled with carrots, meats, potatoes, onion, and a single olive. These tamales rarely make it to Southern California restaurants.
This year, the tamale festival launched its “Artesano Tamaleria” program to highlight home cooks like Doña Cuca.
“There’s just so much talent out through the valley,” said Barajas. “Those abuelitas tías — man, they’re so skillful. But a lot of them just haven’t had the chance to participate.”
Doña Cuca has lived in the region since the 1960s. Her tamales are loved by all. They were made for friends and family only. Two were on José Luis’ refrigerator.
“Some people only make tamales for Christmas,” Doña Cuca said. “But you should always have tamales ready, because you never know who’s going to show up.”
“She’s just so happy doing this,” added her daughter Patricia. “Two years ago, she was really sick. But once she started making the tamales, it’s like life went back into her.”
Barajas and I untied the intricate knots at each end of Doña Cuca’s tamales. They were small, but extremely rich, and they were the beneficiaries of chicken stock that she adds to her masa.
“Look at how beautiful these are!” he told her. “This takes time.”
I asked Doña Cuca how many tamales she planned to make for the Indio festival. “Only 100,” she said, then joked, “I don’t need to start a business right now.”
Barajas had a last wish to show me a place before I drove to Los Angeles. We returned to downtown Indio, and parked at an abandoned Mexican restaurant, where his father worked many decades ago. Barajas had closed escrow on the property earlier this month and plans to open his own taco shop.
“I told my dad, who’s one of those old-school Mexican men who don’t really like to show their feelings,” Barajas said. “He was emotional. I know he was proud.”
The building was boarded. It would require a lot of work. Barajas wasn’t fazed.
“All of this,” he said with a smile, “because of tamales.”
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