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How This Laid Off Dishwasher From Puebla Became DTLA’s ‘Queen of Tamales’

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]eet Gabriela “Gabby” Lázaro, the woman being dubbed “The Queen of Tamales” in Downtown Los Angeles. Her journey from dishwasher to street vendor began after the pandemic forced her job to cut back on staff.

 Like other businesses, the cocktail bar The Wolves had to shut down and close their doors due to COVID-19. In April, co-owner of the bar, Isaac Mejia was forced to make the tough decision of laying off staff with Lázaro being one of them. 

“We had to lay off a lot of our employees which is roughly around 23 to 24 people and that was tough and hard on everyone, we downsized and closed for a while,” said Mejia. 

 Shortly after being laid off Lázaro tried applying to other jobs but had no luck.

 Before the pandemic, she would make extra cash by cleaning houses and had two houses that she would always go to. But like other housekeepers during this time, she was told not to come in anymore. So, with no job in sight, she turned to what she knew best, food.

Tamal de pollo en salsa roja. Photo by Janette Villafana

She spent most of her savings on purchasing the right ingredients and supplies for her now-famous tamales. 

“I had to do what I had to do, I didn't qualify for the stimulus check so that's when I decided to begin selling food in my neighborhood,” said Lázaro.  

Lázaro expressed that at one point police stopped her from selling her food and threw her tamales in the trash, to ensure that she did not continue selling them. 

Street vending has never been easy in Los Angeles. For years, vendors were subject to having their gear confiscated and never returned. On top of being fined, seeing their fresh food get thrown into the trash, and in the worst cases, deported. Since the city legalized street vending this year, the enforcing of vendors having the proper permits for selling food has been at an all-time high. Lázaro was no exception, she encountered police several times when selling tamales on Florence and Central in South L.A. 

 “When he asked how I was doing I was honest, I told him that at that point I had tried selling tamales in the street but kept running into problems with the police,” Lázaro said to her former boss, Mejia. “The police kept telling me I couldn't go out and sell and I was just like ‘I need to,’ like how am I going to get enough money for food and bills?” 

Lázaro expressed that at one point police stopped her from selling her food and threw her tamales in the trash, to ensure that she did not continue selling them. 

The Wolves in Downtown L.A. Photo courtesy of Isaac Mejia

 After speaking with her bosses at The Wolves, Mejia and his team began to brainstorm ideas of how to help her out.  

“It was just super simple, we thought, for the most part we are closed with the exception of selling cocktails to go,” Mejia said. “We have a permit to sell food and thought this would be a great way to help and have her back, it just made sense.” With her bosses backing her up, she posted her tamal stand in front of The Wolves. Starting out small selling only a few tamales in the beginning, to slowly get the crowd used to her food. 

“I was nervous because I wasn't sure if ‘la gente Americana’  were going to like my Mexican food...”

“I was nervous because I wasn't sure if ‘la gente Americana’  were going to like my Mexican food because we are in Downtown L.A. where most of the crowd is white,” said Lázaro. “But Isaac said he would go ahead and support me all the way, so I went for it.” And so, it began, in the last three to four weeks Lázaro began cooking her tamales and packing them up and taking the drive to Downtown to sell them. Posting up at The Wolves every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 2 PM to 8 PM. 

What makes her $2 tamales so good? Well like any good cook with a good sense of sazón, she did not disclose her recipe. However, she did disclose that her masa is made just like it would be made in her home of Puebla, Mexico. Using masa martajada, which is a type of masa deliberately left with a chunkier texture from the nixtamal to better absorb the flavors of the filling. 

She offers pork tamales with salsa roja and salsa verde, along with ones filled with cheese and pickled jalapeños. But she said what makes her tamales so good is really the love and care she puts into each one of them. To complement her tamales, she serves them with salsa verde.

“So far I have only been making salsa verde to go with the tamales, I don't make it too spicy because I know the Americanos sometimes don't like things too spicy,” Lázaro said. “But little by little I'm getting them used to my food and my spices.”

When asked what her most popular tamales were, she said it really depends on what day she is selling. But for the most part her cheese con rajas tamales are the first to sell out, the crowd's second favorite tamal is the pork tamales.

“I am sencilla, I don't like saying I am the best one, I’m sure there's other people out there that make delicious tamales,” she said. “I just know that I make mine with lots of love and thankfully the people have responded well to them.”

With her tamales being a hit with the people in DTLA, Lázaro says she has been able to make enough money to keep her afloat. 

Selling up to 500 tamales in three days, not including the special orders she receives from other customers that sometimes order up to 100 tamales for special events.

“They have acted like more than an employer; they have acted like family.”

As for what the future holds for Lázaro, she said her, and Mejia have been talking about how they can partner up and incorporate her food with their business and turn this into something more permanent. “I told him we can do it, I'll make menudo, tamales, or whatever they want to sell at night or in the morning,” she said. 

For now, The Wolves and Lázaro have stopped selling tamales due to the protests that manifested over the course of the last week in response to the death of George Floyd. For both the safety of their business and that of Lázaro. “We usually stand out there with her, we understand that DTLA can become lonely especially during these times and at times it can become dangerous, but I couldn't think of putting her at risk like that,” said Mejia.   

He said that although they have not been able to sell, some people still place special orders from Lázaro, and they hope to open back up in a week or so. In the meantime, Lázaro is at peace and feels blessed for the support she has received since she began selling tamales. 

“I'm very thankful to everyone that has bought my tamales and especially to my bosses who provided me with the space to sell my food to a new crowd,” she said. “They have acted like more than an employer; they have acted like family.”

You can follow @thewolvesdtla on Instagram to find out when exactly they will be opening up again.

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