FAIRBANKS — Just a few minutes after the “open” sign lit up Thursday at Outlaw Tamales, owner Cylle Pompa was already worried that supplies were running low.
A car had just pulled up and ordered four-dozen pork tamales from the tiny North Pole food hut. A few minutes later, another vehicle arrived to put a dent in the chicken tamale reserve. Eight-dozen more tamales had been pre-ordered and were waiting for pick-up.
Since Outlaw Tamales opened in October, Pompa has quickly discovered that Alaska has a big appetite for the Mexican staple. Her nondescript7-by-7-foot stand, which sits on the edge of the Blockbuster Video parking lot, is particularly busy this week. Christmas is traditional tamale time, and the husk-wrapped delicacies have been flying out of her drive-through window.
It’s been a happy accident for the outgoing grandmother, who never imagined that she’d become North Pole’s tamale ambassador.
“It was a blessing from God,” the transplanted Texan said. “This just isn’t what I thought I was going to do.”
Pompa is from Brownsville, Texas, a border city where tamales are as common as steamy weather. It’s not unusual to see them for sale in parking lots and out of car trunks.
“In Texas, they’re a dime a dozen — everyone is selling those suckers,” she said. “You see a mama with a baby on the hip and an armful of tamales in the other.”
But Pompa hadn’t ever done much tamale-making herself. The burrito-shaped dish, which consists of a cornmeal coating around a meat or bean filling, was made assembly-line style by her aunts. Her job in the process was simply to smooth out masa — a cornmeal paste — inside a corn husk with a spoon.
She hadn’t even thought much about tamales since moving to North Pole five years ago to be closer to her son, John, who had moved to Alaska after a stretch in the Army. She’d helped raise her 4-year-old grandson while running a child-care business in North Pole, but admits she had a tough transition to life in the north.
“I was a hermit the first four years,” she said. “I couldn’t get used to the cold.”
It all changed a year ago, when John asked his mother to make some Christmas tamales. She went crazy with the request, and at the end the leftovers were too much for the family.
John responded with a novel idea. Why not sell them on Craigslist?
Within 30 minutes, tamale-hungry locals were calling. One man ordered five dozen tamales before he’d even tasted them. With that model in mind, she made more and began selling tamales out of her car in parking lots around town.
“It’s been fun watching it grow,” John said. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Her informal approach might be common in Texas, but it wasn’t appreciated by Alaska food-safety officials, who told Pompa she needed to make her tamales in a commercial kitchen. Her not-quite-legal car trunk approach inspired the name of her current business — Outlaw Tamales.
The stand opened in October, and she said it meets state standards for a commercial restaurant. But she still gets a chuckle out of her life on the run — she said her logo will eventually be a bandito tamale.
“I was dodging the bullets big-time,” she said with a laugh.
The business also has given Pompa a chance to connect with her neighbors in North Pole. She chats happily with customers as they drive up to Outlaw Tamales, as steam billows out of her sweltering stand into the cold night air.
She’s even provided some basic tamale education, chuckling at the thought of a bad review she received from someone who didn’t know they needed to remove the tough husks before eating.
Diners can get a dozen tamales with fillings of chicken, pork or black beans. Pompa’s tamales cost more than their typical cousin in the Lower 48 — $20 for a dozen — but she said her filling-heavy recipe doesn’t skimp on the good stuff.
Being known as North Pole’s old-school tamale maker suits Pompa just fine.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Are you going to get one of those tamale machines?’ — no, no, no, no, no,” she said. “I make these with love and my own little two hands.”