Teresa Mason, owner/operator of Mas Tacos Por Favor in East Nashville, is in the corner after the lunch rush, rolling tamales for the Wednesday special. The smell of tinga and masa perforate the air as her big smile greets me. She patiently takes a corn husk out of a bag one at a time and scoops a big dollop of masa (dough) out of a bowl with a spoon and presses it flat into the husk. She then takes a spoonful of the chicken tinga (roasted peppers tomatoes, chipotle, and garlic) and adds it to the mix. Rolling them up one by one, with love and attention, the tamales go into the pan to be steamed for tamale day.
When asked what makes a great tamale Mason replies,"I think for us it's the masa. In lieu of just chicken broth or water in our masa we use our tortilla soup, so it adds a little spike of lime and heat. And then the secret — which is not a secret cause I tell everybody — is the fat. Instead of store bought lard, we render our own. So the flavor is going to be stronger and a bit different. To me, it's just super, super delicious!"
Stepping inside the world that is Mas Tacos in East Nashville instantly reminds me of places I've visited on trips south of the border into Mexico: That little taco stand in Puerto Vallarta visited once upon a time; Mayan Villages on the Yucatan reappear when the large jugs of colorful pineapple and hibiscus agua fresca and horchata looming behind the counter catch my eyes. I'm reminded of the earthiness and love of the people as the smell of corn tortillas, chiles, and lime waft through the air. Not unlike a taco stand, walking through the front door of Mas Tacos instantly offsets the disjointedness of the street to create a sense of a home away from home. The dugout, third-world style of the décor and the chalk-written menus on the wall suit the environment even more, pulling one into a time and place of adventure and otherworldliness. It's welcoming spaces like this that make Nashville seem like a jumping-off place to a much bigger world these days.
Having grown up in Nashville, Mason moved to New York after college with the full intent of never having to work in a restaurant again. "I had a college education, a career path, and I was like … just watch me go!" she says. But about two years into her chosen career, she found it lacking. "I missed the hospitality of the restaurants. I missed meeting people and seeing people. I missed the food and drink and the whole thing, and really, I couldn't believe it. So I found myself deciding I had to get back into the restaurant industry by choice. It completely took me by surprise."
Mason got a job in a New York restaurant and started paying attention to what was going on in the back of the house. Traditionally a front-of-house person, she switched focus and began watching how people were preparing food. She watched the thoughtfulness people would put into their dishes and the debates about it in the kitchen meetings. She became passionate about food, drink, and hospitality all over again.
At about the same time, Mason took her first trip to Mexico and fell in love with it. "I studied journalism and wanted to go to faraway, exotic places," she says, rolling another tamale. "Somehow I always avoided Mexico, thinking it was too close. But once I went, I never went anyplace else."
Mason spent a lot of time in many different regions, and her recipes are inspired by what she found and tasted all across Mexico, from Oaxaca to the East and West coasts. "The best compliment anyone ever gives me is when they describe my food here as 'home cooking,'" she says, "as that's exactly what it is."
Mas Tacos Por Favor now occupies a building at the corner of McFerrin Avenue and Ninth, but Mason began her foray into the restaurant business with a food truck. "Coming from New York you see a lot of food trucks delivering their product on the street with folding tables, you know? Starting in that way was a financial decision as well. I saw how much money it took to start a food business, and I didn't have that kind of money. I knew I could do a truck, though."
So she set up shop in 2008 around Five Points with two tacos, one agua fresca, and Coca-Cola on the menu. At first, Mason primarily served the late-night bar crowd, but with each taco sold Mas Tacos began to develop a local following. Around 2010, it became obvious that she was going to need a kitchen. She found the current location on McFerrin.
"At that time the neighborhood was a little 'iffy,'" remembers Mason. The naysayers said she wouldn't be able attract people to her new space. "I credit the community and people of East Nashville. They have always been willing to support me wherever I am. From the minute we opened it all just felt right," she says.
Wednesday is "Tamale Day" at Mas Tacos, and the lunch-crowd line starts to build early, around 11:15. The word is out, and these don't disappoint. Tender, fluffy masa blankets the roasted tomato, garlic and chicken tinga, steamed and smothered in a roasted tomatillo salsa. Tamales are about corn, and at Mas Tacos, the corn flavor is complemented — not overshadowed — by the spicy chicken inside. It's a balance that follows throughout the menu: pork tacos with succulent roast pork, spicy onions and cabbage topped with a splash of lime, dill and cilantro; Cuban black beans topped with sweet plantains; fried avocado tacos topped with fresh cabbage, onions and dill yogurt. The food is deeply rooted in tradition but accentuated by slight contemporary twists — a mix that reminds us how the taste of faraway places can also bring us closer to home.