.Don’t Stop Thinking About Tamales

Flacos is vegan, but it takes no prisoners.

They are standing in line in the rain. Shifting their weight from hip to hip, switching umbrellas from hand to hand, they smile forbearingly like pilgrims at Lourdes or like fans filling a stadium no matter what. Outside the tented booth whose wind-twisted banner reads Flacos, they duck their heads but hold their ground. Many heft shopping bags stuffed with squash, chilies, melons, pears, and late tomatoes, glinting wet. The rain is picking up again, but still they wait. They peruse the menu-board propped up alongside the tent where Antonio and his assistant chef Samuel dart to and fro, frying taquitos and ladling salsa de aguacate. But most know the menu by heart and they know what they want.

“You’re working today?” a regular at the head of the line asks Antonio.

He shrugs. “It beats staying home.”

Well, yeah, if folks are willing to get wet for what you’ve got. And since Berkeley’s three weekly farmers’ markets are the only place to find his organic, vegan, non-GMO Mexican food served in all-eco-friendly packaging — until he finds a restaurant of his own, and he’s looking — rain be darned.

“How’s it going at the farm?” he asks another customer. Antonio buys produce regularly from fellow flea-market vendors.

But he doesn’t make nicey-nice with it. Nor should he. Nicey-nice is not what we seek in Mexican food. And even without Antonio’s famous throat-searing green salsa, your first bite of the stuffing in a Flacos tamale — velvety mock chicken tinted cinnabar with rich mole sauce, flecked with potato rods and green olives — makes your head do a wow-what’s-this recoil. We too often expect Mexican food this far north of the border to be a bit blander than the genuine article. And we too often expect “vegan” to be synonymous with “gentle,” “mellow,” “mild.” Pero no. At Flacos, meatless can be mean. But in a good way.

Antonio won’t reveal his last name. “I’m a very private guy,” says the serious-eyed, raven-haired self-starter whose angular build might be the inspiration for his business’ name. He was a counselor with the Oakland Unified School District when he became vegan in 1999 and started cooking seriously for himself and his daughter. Having grown up fourth-generation Mexican-American in Southern California, he asked his mother, grandmother, and great-aunt for their treasured recipes. Then came what he calls “the very, very long process” of finding replacements for the lard, chicken broth, and flesh that enriched his childhood favorites. Vegan friends taste-testing his new repertoire urged him to sell it.

“I said, ‘No way! Who’s gonna buy vegan Mexican food?'” But when his family joined the praise chorus, he decided to give it a go.

At the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, “we started with 24 tamales and a bucket of salsa.” They sold out rapidamente. “I was shocked.” In 2001, Antonio was asked to become a regular vendor at the new Tuesday-afternoon South Berkeley market as well. He did, at which point cooking competed with his day job. He had just applied for a plum countywide counseling position in 2005 when he was invited to join yet another new market, Thursday afternoons in North Berkeley.

“I had to make a choice,” he reflects. “I thought, here’s my junction. So I jumped.”

Focusing on homestyle dishes instead of Mexican-restaurant standards, Flacos is a no-burrito zone. “Burritos are American,” as are flour tortillas, Antonio sniffs.

Steamed in aromatic banana leaves rather than the usual cornhusks, his signature tamal en oja de platano feature tropical southeastern-coast-Mexican and even South American touches such as capers. A traditional mole sauce — one of the many varieties without chocolate — saturates soft soy-protein “chicken” imported from Taiwan. While vegetarian and vegan versions of most Mexican dishes can be whipped up at home — tortillas and beans, meet microwave — the glaring exception is tamales, meals-in-a-pocket traditionally comprising meat stuffed into masa, a cornmeal dough pretty much always moistened with lard. Antonio uses organic vegetable oil instead. (Vegan masa is so rare that Flacos also sells its version in bulk.)

And while most Mexican dishes are constructed labor-intensively by hand — stuffed, folded, rolled — tamale-making requires the most intimate manipulations of all, a two-handed squeezing-smoothing-wrapping ritual that makes the finished product feel like a gift.

By contrast, Flacos’ tacos and taquitos are super simple. Each taquito is a deep-fried corn-tortilla tube containing a hank of mock meat — stringy, as befits taquitos — and nothing more. Even with a splotch of salsa, these still make you want to add stuff: cheese, say. Tomatoes. Sour cream. And each taco is a CD-sized soft corn mini-tortilla folded over a scoop of mock meat — melt-in-the-mouth and shreddy, as befits tacos — and nothing more. But what a scoop. In a wild spectacle of disproportion, the mini-tortilla barely restrains a refulgent wallop of pure protein. These, too, make you think: Add lettuce. Cilantro. Remove half the mock meat for future use.

Antonio’s penchant for protein also pervades his plump, saucy, not-too-salty Cuban-style black beans, which, over his tomatoey organic short-grain rice, comprise one of those elemental meals that you realize you wouldn’t mind eating thrice daily, if it came to that. Protein-packed, too, is his champurrado, a hot masa-based breakfast drink just a teensy bit thinner than Cream of Wheat, plying that strange rare verge between savory, spicy, and sweet.

Flacos’ integrity, sincerity, and simplicity stand to make you almost teary-eyed, as when a stranger returns your lost wallet with the money still inside. As world cuisines go, old-fashioned Mexican isn’t one of the heart-healthiest. Yet Antonio’s version tastes and feels real, without the guilt. It’s revisionist culinary history. But in a good way.


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