The City of Gainesville has done a tremendous job in recent years of revitalizing the area around Depot Avenue and South Main Street. There has been the completion of the wonderful Depot Park that neighbors First Magnitude Brewing Company to the north, Pop-A-Top General Store, the upcoming Cade Museum, LEJ Pretzel Company, and more recently; Tamal. The latter which I have long been eager to try. Why? I have an affinity for specialty eateries that do one thing and one thing very very well, and this place certainly fits the bill.

Located at 439 South Main Street, next to the now-defunct Citizen’s Co-Op Market, Tamal (Spanish singular form of tamales) is the brain-child of Chef/Owner Rachel Iannelli and is no secret to many people already. The hours here are limited, only open for lunch from noon till 4 PM (or when sold out) on Thursdays through Sundays. The line can sometimes stretch out the door, while the dining room is very small, with only a handful of two-tops. Parking can be a pain, though there’s a dirt lot adjacent to the building. The wait can also be longer than you’d think because the chef/owner is more accurately a chef, server, cashier, busser, and hostess all rolled into one. While these can all be cons, the delicious food at ridiculously low prices makes up for any short comings.

See, the menu of tamales is ever rotating, and can range from red mole chicken, to green mole pulled pork, vegetarian, chorizo potato, olives + tomatoes + potatoes, and more. Every tamale is somehow only $3. Each are hand-made by the owner, complete with her own masa (the corn-based dough that makes up the tamale), and wrapped in corn husk. Both the red mole chicken and the OTP (olives, tomatoes, and potatoes) I tried were hot, fresh, and ridiculously flavorful. While the menu can range anywhere from two to four types of tamales on any given day, there’s always a meat and a veggie option. The starchy masa and the protein make for a very filling serving, especially at the price. No wonder tamales were used in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations as food in the field to feed travelers, hunters, and even their armies. But I digress…

Sides are equally as inexpensive with beans and rice, or collard greens and rice, each for $3 a bowl. Or a pickled egg, cup of basmati rice, collard greens cup, beans cup, or the popular cucumber on a stick (literally a cucumber on a stick covered in chili and lime) for $2 each. There’s even house-made juice drinks available, and on occasion, horchata as well. While the sides were good, I would opt for two or three orders of tamales and a side of their house-made crema (sour cream). It’s more than enough food for a filling lunch. Anyone with Celiac’s will be happy to know that everything here is gluten-free as well.

I was impressed by the level of care and love put into every single item at Tamal. And while low prices are often times a result of cut-corners or inferior products, no one is phoning it in at this restaurant. Some people may complain about their hours, but to see the amount of work that one person was putting into their restaurant was very beautiful to watch. The tamales, the sides, and even the juices all came from one pair of hands. While I was told there was occasionally a helper for the super busy days, what I witnessed was a line of people waiting to order that stretched onto the sidewalk along Main Street. Every single person with a smile. A party of six happily put their own tables together, everyone seemed to enjoy their food, and when they were done, everyone cleaned their own tables, and left with a smile. All the while, the owner would ring up a handful of customers at a time, step away to cook a few orders, run the food out to the tables, and run back to take more orders. While it was stressful for me to even watch, she never stopped smiling. It’s amazing what happens when you put a lot of love into your food.

So if you haven’t already gathered, this place has my support. If you plan to go, go early so you can beat the rush and grab a table. When I arrived 10 minutes prior to opening, there was already a small gathering of people outside. I would also suggest checking their Facebook to keep up with the daily menu and their sometimes sporadic hours of business. Part of the reason why it took me so long to visit was because of several aborted missions due to unexpected closings. Don’t make that mistake! If all else fails, look for the rolling cart out front that points you in the direction of “delicious tamales.”

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© 2020 by Ken Peng & Ken Eats, LLC. Title image courtesy of Jesse Adrian Scanlon Media.

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