Espee’s Gourmet Tamales

I still remember the first tamale I ate as a child, back before authentic Mexican food reached the little corner of the white-bread world where I grew up.

Served buried in chili, it had been wrapped in paper and packed into a jar. It was awful, just awful, the masa di harina exterior gummy, the mystery meat kinda grainy, the seasonings way too tame. But something about it — about the contrast between the cornmeal and the meat, maybe — intrigued me, and I knew there had to be something better out there in the world of tamales.

Cut to just a few years later and my first authentic cornhusk-wrapped rendition, the masa exterior both lighter and possessed of much more texture, the filling with both better texture and better flavor than the packed-in-a-jar version. I was hooked, and I’ve had many more over the years, of widely varying styles and qualities.

So when I heard about Espee’s Gourmet Tamales, I was intrigued — wow; a place that not only serves tamales but elevates them to celebrated status. These I would have to try.

The verdict? Well yes, they’re good, but in a restaurant dedicated to the fine art of the tamale, I was hoping for more variation, more innovation — more excitement, maybe.

Things started off promising enough. Espee’s is a member of the growing group of counter-service restaurants in the valley (I’m thinking there’s a trend story there, but that’s for another day), and after placing our order at the counter and being handed a cardboard bowl of crisp flour-tortilla chips, we made our way first to a table and then to the salsa bar. Mango salsa? Sweet! And not overly so, as it turned out. No mango-overload, either, this was a well-balanced, smooth salsa that a sign noted was especially effective on fish tacos but that we found nothing short of delicious on the chips. A creamy chipotle salsa was smooth and mild, and a tomatillo version had lots of life. We liked them and the apparently housemade chips (crisp and not overly fragile, without a trace of grease) so much that an employee brought us another bowl.

Looking for variety, I tried a turkey tamale ($5.49, or $8.49 as part of a one-item plate, or $13.49 as part of a two-item plate, which we had). It seemed really different, with "savory turkey gravy with cranberry sauce." OK, I probably should have known better, because the majority of turkey gravy that doesn’t come from-scratch out of somebody’s kitchen or a particularly skilled restaurant is pasty and bland in the extreme, and that’s what this one was. The cranberry sauce was simply a little cup of the jellied stuff, served on the side. The tamale itself was fine, with lots of shredded turkey, but this struck me as more of a concession to somebody who doesn’t really like Mexican food than an effort to be innovative.

For the other item on the plate, I chose a chile relleno, which had a nice puffy batter and a good, fresh pepper but was a little oily.

A pork tamale was good, the earthy masa envelope filled with a profusion of tender, shredded meat. Refried beans and seasoned rice on both plates were average.

A quesadilla we started with ($5.99, plus $2.89 for chicken, shrimp or beef) also was fairly standard, although the steak pieces were exceptionally tender, and we liked the little mound of lettuce, smooth guacamole and lots of crema that they served with it.

The star of the show turned out to be the puffy taco we had as part of a combo. The masa shell had been puffed up so that it was neither a crispy taco nor a soft taco but somewhere in between, which is a good thing. The carne asada filling we chose was suitably tender, the lettuce crisp, the pico de gallo well flavored.

Service throughout was fine — actually better than I’d expect in a counter-service spot, although that may be because it was pretty quiet on the evening of our visit. The atmosphere is fairly utilitarian but pleasant enough, and squeaky clean.

We’ve heard some complaints about price increases at Espee’s, and they must be common enough that the owners chose to address it on the takeout menu, noting that they absorbed supply price hikes as long as they could. I know increased prices have been bedeviling a lot of restaurant owners, and I actually thought Espee’s still offers good value, considering the amount of food that is served.

But whether it’s a factor of a timid clientele or what, I just wish Espee’s was a little more adventurous.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.

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