Most people take time off to celebrate the holidays. But Jesse Moreno, owner of La Popular Tamale House, puts in 20-hour days to keep up with what he calls the “tamale season.”
“People associate tamales with tradition,” Moreno says. “Plus, the cold weather helps.”
During the holiday season, this neighborhood resident says he sells tamales to “American” customers and the supplies to make tamales to Hispanic customers.
Every day from Thanksgiving weekend through Jan. 2, La Popular is open until 7 p.m. to meet the season’s demands. Moreno also mails tamales to customers as far away as Chicago, California and New York.
Making tamales during the holidays is a Hispanic tradition, Moreno says. Tamales typically were made when large groups of people gathered, providing more sets of hands to help with the difficult process.
Families normally gathered during the holiday season, and while making the tamales, they had an opportunity to visit, Moreno says.
La Popular is an example of a family tradition turned into a business. During the holiday rush, Moreno hires relatives as part-time help. But even after the holidays, wife Amelia and cousin Emilo Sotele work full-time, while his father and children help part-time.
Moreno opened La Popular in 1988 after his tortilla business failed.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Moreno says. “It took a while to convince people that tamales are a daily commodity.”
“I had no doubt. I just didn’t know how hard it would be. Making tamales is very tedious. You have to love doing it.”
Pork, chicken, beef, vegetable, and bean and jalapeno tamales are made everyday for $5 a dozen. Tamales with special ingredients, such as turkey and venison, also are made from time to time.
Moreno’s tamales are made by hand, using custom pots and cooking utensils.
“I’m just as fast as a machine and more reliable,” Moreno says.
Moreno says he has received offers to move his business to Highland Park and the West End. But he likes his location, near the intersection of Columbia and Fitzhugh, which is close to home and in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Moreno works to make the neighborhood better for future generations, especially his three children. He teaches students at J.L. Long Middle School, Woodrow Wilson and other neighborhood schools how to make tamales and about his business. He also sponsors children’s sports teams and caters food for school special events.
“It is tempting sometimes to sell it,” Moreno says. “But we’ve sacrificed so much to make it, it would be a shame to have someone move in.”
“I felt like I needed to reinvest in the neighborhood. We’re not just saying we’re part of the neighborhood – we are part of the neighborhood.”