Does this look familiar? It does to us too. It would be like a time warp except this was not found on Carrollton Avenue in the old house but on the corner of Robert E. Lee and Canal Boulevard.
We were heading from last weekend's aborted Oktoberfest visit to another Blue Crab dusk when we passed a handwritten poster paper with a black marker notice that read: Manuel’s Hot Tamales. I nearly screeched to a stop, but overshot the light and u-turned at the next chance, pulling up at the gas station and strip mall there. It was Manuel’s-style hot tamales, and we have seen and heard that before. But these were doppelgangers if a tamale could be that, complete with a grease sludge in the pan. The sauce was exactly the same color, the tamales the same size, with the masa and meat intertwined as we have seen nowhere else.
The man behind this blast-from-the-past circa 2019 is William Wright, DBA Billy Wright’s Manuel’s Style Hot Tamales.
We approached the car and tried the free sample, which was deja vu. While we were there a guy came up to get a dozen because his mother-in-law reported the same experience. Maybe experience isn’t the right word because the experience of Manuel’s Hot Tamales is individual, and sacred to natives of this city. They came home with my father, a football-sized bundle coated in grease, even though they were wrapped in layer upon layer of newspaper. We ate them with Saltine crackers. It was a special night at our house. Tom’s recollections are sharing them on a picnic table with Jude after school at Jesuit, only blocks away.
It all ended with Katrina, as so many things did. I am always wistful driving by that hallowed spot, shaking my head that the room of ladies rolling tamales will never be again, now replaced by some office. And I’ve always wondered why none of the Martinez family kept it going after the floodwaters subsided.
Billy Wright did not get the recipe from the family. He recreated it using his years of experience in restaurants, and more important, his sweet memories of the taste. His years as manager of the Bud's Broiler on City Park at the railroad tracks somehow gives him a particular street cred for this very venture.
He expects to be in a food truck soon, and maybe starting a new tradition. He’ll have a lot of takers, wanting to revisit their own sweet memories of a New Orleans institution that can be no more.