Steve Barker never aspired to become a restaurateur, and perhaps that is a little bit of a haughty term for what he does at Tommy Tamale Market & Cafe.
With the tamale as his primary medium, he doesn’t have quite as big a canvas to work from as other Tex-Mex shops, so the execution becomes all the more important. The following he’s gathered through the past seven-plus years has come to appreciate the fact that his tamales are more than meets the masa.
But since he and his wife, JoAnn, have taken their tamale stand off of the farmers market circuit and into four walls on Northwest Highway, they’ve proved that their tamales provide a strong enough foundation on which to build a fast-casual concept.
And at Tommy Tamale, which is every bit as casual as fast-casual gets, it’s all anchored by the Tommy Bowl, one of the area’s ultimate Tex-Mex conglomerations. In the sea of Mexican food along both Texas 114 and 121, the Tommy Bowl is what sets Tommy Tamale apart. A bed of rice soaks up a heaping helping of chili and queso with one tamale on the small serving ($8) or two on the large ($12).
The large bowl will send a pair of diners home ready for a nap. The habanero pork tamales are the perfect combination, and aren’t quite as spicy as the name suggests. Don’t be intimidated.
And if they are out of the habanero, the Hatch pork or chicken is every bit as good. The outside masa layer is just thick enough to keep the tamale together without overpowering the filling inside.
Tommy Tamale’s dessert tamales actually use the same masa for their outside layer. It’s more successful in the chocolate version than in the apple, but it’s antoher unique twist on the tamale that keeps things fresh.
Barker has been slinging tamales since 2009, when he went door-to-door with them in his hometown of Decatur. A couple years later, he moved into the Grapevine Farmers Market with frozen tamales and “Rockin’ B” salsas.
All Tommy’s tamales (yes, Barker answers to Tommy) are gluten-free and lard-free, and when not in bowl form, they’re actually a decent option if you’re belly-conscious. For non-meat-eaters, there are cheese and jalapeño, vegan black bean, black bean and cheese, and a spinach and feta version that is about as unique as tamales get.
Tommy Tamale is the perfect answer to a draining afternoon by the pool or at the lake, and you can bring your leftover beers, too. It’s about as laid-back of a dining atmosphere as you can get in the Mid-Cities.
But the eight-table walk-up window and cafe only takes up half of Barker’s real estate on the anchor corner of his Northwest Highway strip center. He sells salsas, spices and some of the most addictive peanut brittle in Tarrant County in the “market” portion of his digs.
Aside from his own salsas, of course, Barker carries the wildly popular Yellowbird sauces from Austin, as well as all manner of more-local flavors for all levels of spice inclinations.
His walls of spice also include something for dessert. At $8 a bag, the peanut brittle doesn’t come cheap, but it’s more than worth a try. The jalapeño peanut brittle is colored green but doesn’t carry much heat. The habanero option is red and is “warm,” Barker said.
The ghost pepper peanut brittle is that regular khaki hue, discernible from the sweet stuff only by the pepper flakes inside the candy, “to trick your friends,” Barker likes to say. The heat comes along later in a bite, but it’s still not overpowering.
Like your dinner at Tommy Tamale, the real danger lies in not being able to push it away once you’ve started.