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Francesca Bacardi/MEDILL

Pepe Balanzar and his coworker serve up unusual tamales to Chicagoans downtown and in the neighborhoods.

Tamale Spaceship’s food aims to be out of this world

by Francesca Bacardi
Jan 31, 2013


Francesca Bacardi/MEDILL

The two are wearing Mexican wrestling masks.

Manny Hernandez was a victim of the recession like many others. He lost his job, he had to make do and he had to figure out a way to support his family – fast.

But because he had been involved in restaurants for more than 20 years, Hernandez knew the food business really well. His current business partner, Pepe Balanzar, had also been in the restaurant business for more than a dozen years.

“To be honest with you I did it out of necessity,” Hernandez said. “I lost my job, and I wanted to start doing my own thing.”

And start his own thing he did. Hernandez, 38, and Balanzar, 40, opened the Tamale Spaceship, a food truck that travels around Chicago selling, well, tamales. The partners pooled their savings to buy the truck. The foodies, now a team of five, dole out their tamales wearing lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) masks because Balanzar is a huge fan of the sport.

Hernandez and Balanzar opted to open a food truck for two reasons: food trucks were becoming popular around the city and they didn’t have enough money to open a full-blown restaurant.

“We thought maybe open up a food truck as a stepping stone in order for us to eventually open up something bigger,” Hernandez said.

The truck, however, doesn’t serve up typical tamales. “We took a traditional Mexican dish and made it a tamale,” Hernandez said. The seasonal tamal de pato features duck confit, sun dried cranberries and a mole made from dates ($7.75 for two). A Yucatecan-style roasted pork tamale boasts tomato-habanero sauce and purple pickled onions.

Customers might wonder how the duo came up with the truck’s name. It really comes down to a combination of different ideas, Hernandez says. Tamale, because they sell tamales, and spaceship because the food is “out of this world,” Balanzar adds. What Hernandez considered most important was the idea of mixing traditional foods with contemporary presentation.

The Tamale Spaceship was named best food truck by the Chicago Reader and Chicago Magazine in 2011, but it hasn’t always been at the top of its game. The truck opened when the economy was just beginning to turn around, so times were hard.

“It’s been progressing,” Hernandez said. “2011 was good in its own standards. 2012 was better, and this year, as far as our catering department, is already looking even better.”

The food truck has seasonal highs and lows. In January and February the truck usually sees fewer customers because of the extreme cold that deters people from leaving their offices. But in the spring, business picks up. This year the duo is expecting to rack up revenue of $75,000, according to Balanzar.

As the truck has become more successful, Hernandez and Balanzar opened a catering department that can serve large parties. A minimum order is at least eight tamales and it must be placed at least 24 hours in advance. A separate truck makes the catering runs. Each year the catering department has grown.

“Last year we didn’t have anything in our books,” Hernandez said. “Now we have a handful of big, private events, and that’s a good sign. We’re targeting to do 30 to 40 percent better than last year.”

Even though the tamale truck sits in different areas of the Loop four days a week, Hernandez and Balanzar realized there was more demand than it could meet. So what did the masked foodies to do? They bought another truck to serve the outskirts of the city.

The truck has a website that lists all of its stops while its Twitter handle live-tweets its locations. Eighty percent of the truck’s customers are regulars, but every day new people show up.

“While I was walking down the street I saw this truck called the Tamale Spaceship,” said Chicagoan Max Kolasinksi after he ordered his complicated tamal de carne (flank steak with traditional Oaxacan black mole and sesame seeds). “I pretty much had to go. You got the flashing lights, the spoiler, that’s pretty cool.”

Adam Johnson, another Chicagoan, bought his lunch from the Tamale Spaceship as a spur-of-the-moment decision. “I like food trucks,” Johnson said. “It kind of adds a bit of diversity to the lunch rush. If I see a food truck, it’s a good excuse to try something different.”

In addition to a slow economy, food trucks have had it rough recently due to a complicated ordinance that passed in November. What was supposed to be helpful to operators has actually made it more of a hassle, they say. Formerly, operators were not allowed to cook on their trucks, but that has changed at the expense of other restrictions.

Several food trucks have filed a lawsuit against the city stating that the ordinance, which bans food trucks from operating within 200 feet of any business that serves food, including convenience stores, “stifles competition and freedom.” It also requires trucks to install GPS devices that broadcast their whereabouts so that the city can keep track of their movements.

Loosening the prohibition on onboard cooking didn’t help the Tamale Spaceship, because it cooks its food Mondays at a shared kitchen. But the ordinance’s new rules are causing problems.

“There’s a lot more requirements,” Hernandez said. “It has gotten a little bit harder just in general.”

The health inspections are the hardest part to pass, according to Hernandez, because it’s very difficult to get the Health Department to come and take a look at the kitchen and the truck. Just recently the Tamale Spaceship was able to get a new license after the old one expired, but it had to jump through all of the usual hoops.

Although meals-on-wheels are now Hernandez and Balanzar’s specialty, they take their truck seriously and treat it like a restaurant, but with a little less formality.

“We bring good food and a little bit of fun to our customers,” Hernandez said.