At exactly noon, Nick Iannelli, co-owner of Tamal, wheels out a large horse-drawn cart onto the sidewalk. A chalkboard sign hanging over the cart reads: “For You: Delicious Tamales.” Rachel Iannelli, Nick’s wife, has been rolling and steaming them all morning. Small pieces of Southwestern art and Mexican textiles are scattered around and above the open kitchen. Ten minutes after opening, a line begins to form outside—customers know to snag one early before they run out, which normally happens within the first few hours.
“We’re a food truck without wheels,” Rachel said. “We make as much as we can, as good as we can and we cook ‘em off.”
Long-time Gainesville residents Rachel and Nicholas Iannelli opened Tamal, on the corner of South Main Street and SE 5th Ave, last September. They specialize in Mexican-style, hand-made tamales, a traditional Central and South American dish of masa (a corn-meal dough) and assorted fillings steamed in a cornhusk. They can be eaten unwrapped on a plate or handheld walking down the street.
“Everybody is super friendly, super enthusiastic, and they seem ready and wanting to engage in something new and different,” Rachel said.
The menu is á la carte. Tamales cost around $3 a piece, and three to four options—like the red mole chicken and ancho pork with corn—rotate each day. The sides, served and priced individually, include Nick’s famous boiled peanuts, pinto beans and rice, collard greens, an assortment of pickled vegetables and even cucumber on a stick, rolled in lime juice and bright red chili powder.
Even the jamaica and tamarindo agua fresca beverages at Tamal are made from scratch, with dried hibiscus flowers and tamarind sweetened with sugar. Mainly due to Rachel’s high standards, Tamal’s almond milk horchata is only served on the weekends.
“We’re a food truck without wheels. We make as much as we can, as good as we can and we cook ‘em off.”
There are also vegan and vegetarian options available for anyone to enjoy. The poblano, cheddar, tomato tamale — a customer favorite — is delicious enough to eat on its own, but their Tapatio hot sauce makes it absolutely killer.
Tamal is also a family affair. Nick, a woodworker, built the bar counter and tables. Their son Cecil cooks and runs the register in front. For Rachel, the head chef, Mexican street food was a childhood favorite.
“We both grew up in Los Angeles eating tamales for school lunches, sort of taking it for granted,” she said.
For years, the Iannelli’s made tamales for family and friends on special occasions, recreating the tamales they ate together at Lopez Bakery while living in Brooklyn.
Then Rachel worked in almost every restaurant in Gainesville, even a few out of business today: Coney Island, Emiliano’s, Wolfgang’s, Home On The Range and The Hardback Cafe.
“I feel really thankful that the places that I worked in over the period of time that I did in Gainesville,” she said. ‘I got to work with really creative people.”
Tamal was initially funded out-of-pocket while Rachel worked as a prep cook at Crane Ramen and Nicholas continued his carpentry business. The restaurant’s Indiegogo campaign enabled the Iannelli’s to finally open Tamal’s doors to the community.
Tamal is open Thursdays to Sundays, from noon until they sell out.
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Its Facebook page lists the weekly menu and alerts customers when they sell out for the day. In the future, Rachel wants to expand the menu to include plates and new varieties of tamales.
The hardest part about running Tamal, she says, is exhaustion. She takes the days off to do bookkeeping, food preparation and ingredient shopping. But the desire to share fresh delicious food with others, she said, is all the motivation she needs.
“Food comes from deep places. So give it time, is my thought,” Rachel said. “And I’m willing to give it that time, and I want to give it my time.” •