Houston’s Black Girl Tamales combines Mexican and soul food

Houston’s Black Girl Tamales combines Mexican and soul food

The Spring resident launched Black Girl Tamales in September 2019, but Larkin jokes that she was her grandmother’s “little sous chef” rolling dough and filling corn husks with chicken or pork.

After nearly two decades of cooking in kitchens and teaching classrooms, Larkin, 41, is now focused on turning a side hustle selling tamales into a full-fledged business that has grown since the pandemic began.

Black Girl Tamales is as much a nod to Larkin’s grandmother, Rosa, as it is to the tamales that combine Mexican and soul food traditions. The Soul Food Tamale with smoked turkey greens, Creole sausage, jambalaya and boudin relish is, as Larkin says, “a testament to staying true to who I am.”

“I know what people think when they see me selling tamales,” Larkin said. “I’m black and I make tamales. It is what it is and I’m not hiding from it.”

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Larkin’s best-selling tamale started when she had leftovers and decided to mix greens and smoked turkey with corn batter. She’s sold a variety of flavors inspired by soul food, but as her grandmother taught her, the mass is the most important part.

“(Making tamales costs) cash,” Larkin said. “But if the measure isn’t just right, it should go in the trash.”

The Texan’s culinary career began at the Art Institute of Houston, where she earned her associate’s degree and spent eight years cooking in restaurants, including two at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in The Woodlands as a pastry chef.

It wasn’t until 2019 that Larkin said he considered focusing on tamales full-time. Demand during the pandemic increased, and for several months, she eventually ran out of operations from a commercial kitchen.

This fall, she leased Mango Deli space in an Energy Corridor office building and renamed it Mango Deli & Cafe to continue growing her business. She recently won a $15,000 grant from Heinz, which funded a grant program focused on supporting black-owned businesses.

“It’s a very unique, specific product,” said Terry Kranz, director of sales at Dallas-based Sunrise Mexican Foods, which packs larger orders for Black Girl Tamales. “Just look at the ingredients.”

Larkin’s blend of traditional Mexican flavors and soul foods is a common theme in the South. Black chefs and home cooks have a long history of putting their own spin on recipes, from combining Creole and Chinese ingredients into dishes like yaka mein or even the simple barbecue-filled street taco. In Houston, diners can find quesadillas filled with gumbo or even tamales with oxtail.

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The pandemic prompted her to grow Black Girl Tamales with the onset of indoor dining restrictions and an increase in demand for takeout, Larkin said.

In 2020, Houstonian Karen Nickerson became a loyal customer after reading about Larkin’s tamales in a Facebook post promoting black-owned businesses.

“What would you like to eat in the African American community? Barbecue. Fried fish. But tamales? We don’t make tamales,” Nickerson said.

She has been ordering Black Girl Tamales ever since and often buys enough to freeze any extra. While she’s tasted lobster etouffée and gumbo versions from the brand, Nickerson said her favorite is the best-selling greens with smoked turkey.

“It makes you think of cornbread and a side of collards, but I’m eating it in one bite,” Nickerson said. “It reminds me of my mom’s cooking.”

While the north Houston resident said she lives close to the popular Alamo Tamales, the support of a black woman was as important as the quality of the tamales themselves.

“Not to discount the other chefs and restaurateurs, but they were popular,” Nickerson said. “Black Girl Tamales is nowhere near the norm and that’s what I loved.”

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