Gabriel Martinez, born in Puebla, Mexico, counts off the three American dreams: "1. Citizenship. 2. To own a house with a white fence. And 3. To go into debt to set up a business."
With his mom, Rosa Ortega, Martinez bought a house in Southwest Detroit at auction six years ago, and now, at Bodega Cat, he's working on fulfilling the last dream. He wants a restaurant, but the permits are expensive, so for now it's a corner store (at Toledo Street and Scotten Avenue) where he and Rosa sell her tamales — the best, she says, in Southwest Detroit.
Martinez lived in New York for many years after moving to the U.S. at the age of 11, which is where he became familiar with the ubiquitous cats that haunt bodegas. The store was named after his own 20-year-old feline (who does not, however, hang out there).
The tamale business actually began a while ago, with Ortega advertising her wares on Facebook and by going door to door, then selling from the trunk of her car. Her price is a little higher than those at some restaurants, but she says her clients all swear her tamales are the best. They're a good seven inches long inside their corn husks.
When I asked for a secret of good tamales, Ortega actually laughed. "It's a secret," she explained. She theorized that her tamales are good because she's happy when she's cooking, and she talks to the tamales, telling them they should turn out well. Martinez referenced the book and movie Like Water for Chocolate: when the heroine, Tita de la Garza, is sad, her feelings seep into the food she cooks and depress the whole household. Likewise for sexual desire.
It sure made me happy to eat these tamales. Ortega says they are in the style of her village, Molcaxac, an hour and a half from the state capital of Puebla, and that she was, of course, taught by her mother. Besides making pork and chicken versions every day, she randomly adds to the menu at times a vegan mole Poblano tamale and a dulce (sweet — with pineapple, coconut, raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar). Fridays you can always get a vegetarian cheese-and-jalapeño. My favorite is the chicken, which adds just a hint of spice, probably with salsa verde, though, like I said, it's a secret.
Martinez says the tamales are often complimented on their high salsa-and-carne to masa ratio. They buy the masa fresh every day from La Michoacana tortilla factory on Bagley and their pork and chicken from Wolverine Packing in Eastern Market. Ortega stirs the masa for 40 minutes, cooks the salsas for two hours, the chicken for two, and the pork for three. Then comes the laborious wrapping — it takes three hours to neatly enfold 120 tamales in corn husks. And getting good husks can be a problem; when you buy a package, the seller may have hidden too-small leaves underneath the right-sized ones on top.
Reader, I want you to think about all those things the next time you buy a tamale for a quick but filling bite.
Martinez says the tamales at Bodega Cat can be gone by 9 a.m. — his main customers are landscaping workers on their way to a job. But you can definitely call and ask him to save you some for pick-up later in the day.
It's not easy opening a new business, as nearly all the places I've reviewed over the years will tell you. For Martinez, first there was cleaning up the mess left by the former owner, then painting the exterior a brilliant red and blue. The charming cat logo was designed by Miriam Cuevas, whom Martinez met doing immigrant rights work, and who has a small business creating logos at a discount for new start-ups in the neighborhood.
Then Martinez needed to stock the store, but to buy more stock, you need to sell. A beer and wine license granted July 3 should make a big difference, possibly with longer hours. When I visited, Martinez was reading Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading Part 1: A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business. He'd like to follow Zingerman's trajectory from grocery store to restaurant.
For now, you can sit in the air-conditioning at the tables inside Bodega Cat. That's what I did. Complement your tamale with Mexican Coke, Topo Chico mineral water, or Jarritos pop, always imported and always made with sugar instead of corn syrup (what a health claim). Don't be put off by the brown of the tamarind flavor; that shows it's from real tamarind pulp and not adulterated with coloring. Lime and orange are good too.
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