Just past Duke Hospital, in a strip mall off of Erwin Road, Margaritte Malfy is cooking up lively sauces and fresh, flavorful tamales. Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made of masa, or cornmeal dough, packed with ground meat or sauces, and then wrapped and steamed in a corn husk. A North Carolina native who has been cooking in New York kitchens for many years, Malfy opened her taqueria in the East Village in 2000, inspired by her travels throughout Mexico. Now she has returned home to create tamales, tacos, and tequila cocktails in the style of the Yucatan peninsula, with locally sourced ingredients from North Carolina farmers.
Vibe: The dining room is spacious, flanked by two large wood-topped bars where you can grab yourself a cocktail while a painting of Centeotl, the Aztec goddess of sustenance and maize, looks on. Grab a seat by the large wall of windows for some people-watching or at one of the bar stools for a peek into the kitchen. Often, Malfy will stop by your table to say hello or offer advice on what to order before whizzing off to greet the next guests or to whip something up behind the scenes. Things slow down on weeknights, though, and you can take the time to sip your drink. The Tamale Factory emphasizes its tight-knit team as much as the traditional Yucatan recipes being used in the kitchen, making for a homey atmosphere with laid-back service.
Menu: To get the best sampling of what Tamale Factory has to offer, order several tamales or tacos rather than one main entrée. Choices are extensive, with everything from chipotle chicken to smoky carnitas to crispy fish, and a welcome selection of flavorful vegetarian options that are anything but afterthoughts. Because the kitchen partners with local farmers for both meat and produce, seasonal specials are worth a try, in particular, their fruit margaritas. The drink menu is extensive, with both classic and creative choices in cocktails, tequila, and beers. If you don’t glance at the specials menu, you might miss the dessert section, but the plantains and churros are easily some of the best menu items on offer.
What to order: It’s hard to go wrong with any of the starters, and if you’re with a crowd, try as many as you can. Go for the creamy guacamole, served alongside a classic pico de gallo, but be sure to jazz up both with the fiery house-made salsas brought to the table. Or try platanos con crema—lightly fried sweet plantains with a drizzle of queso and crema—for something a little sweeter. If you’re in the mood to indulge, and especially if you manage to snag a table outside, be sure to get your hands on one of the house margaritas, maybe watermelon or strawberry, made with fresh-squeezed juices.
For the main course, the namesake tamales stand-out, with Braza la Reina, or “The Queen’s Hand,” being my personal favorite. The dish is simple—the masa is served with a savory, spiced tomato sauce, toasted pumpkin seed, and queso fresco—but it gives the kitchen’s excellent and flavorful sauces a chance to shine. The tacos are fresh and light, with a few more options than the tamales. Try the tinga de pollo for smoky pulled chicken paired with tangy queso, or the camarones en adobo for ancho-chile-spiced shrimp with sweet onion.
If you’ve saved room for dessert (and you really should), don’t miss the churros. They’re perfectly crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and are coated with enough cinnamon sugar to guarantee you’ll be licking your fingers. Dip them in the rich chocolate and caramel sauces served on the side and thank us later.
Price point: Appetizers like guacamole, loaded nachos, or chicarrones are $8. One tamale is $5, three are $12.50. Tacos and quesadillas run from $5–$7 each. Large plate specials are $14–$20. A standard margarita is $8.
Perfect for: A fun, boozy lunch or dinner with your crew; filling, vegetarian eats.