In her 30-plus years of Fiesta cooking at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Rafaela Canseco estimates that she’s produced the astounding quantity of 135,000 mouth-watering tamales.
But this year she’s passing the tamal-making torch to Francisco Jimenez and has taken charge of the team making sopes, a savory, if spicy typical Mexican dish.
Assisted by daughter Bianca Rodríguez and a large team of church ladies, Canseco employs a tried-and-true recipe from her mother, the late Juana Fragosa Unzueta. Canseco, born in Durango, Mexico, is proud of her U.S. citizenship and the Old Country style of cooking.
During Fiesta week when Our Lady of Guadalupe throws its own Fiesta, “I start at 6 a.m. and work until closing time at 9 or 10,” Canseco told me. “I keep going. My daughter gets upset with me because I don’t eat. I’m too busy to eat, and I’m not really hungry.”
If you head for Our Lady of Guadalupe this week, you may see daughter Bianca, son-in-law Anthony Rodríguez, and son Greg at the front counter, but not Canseco.
“You won’t see me. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
The Guadalupe Fiesta is a production of the Lower Eastside community and draws people from all walks of life on the South Coast. But it involves hard work, like lifting heavy bags of masa dough and 100-quart pots of hot water.
“We do this because we love this church. Without Fiesta, this church would struggle.” The first year she was involved in tamal-making, 1,600 pounds of masa went into the process.
Left by her predecessors without a recipe, she asked her mother, always a safe thing to do. “Just do them the way we do,” her mother told her, also passing on her recipe for the sauce. And Canseco is now passing it on to her daughter.
“By Sunday noon, they were all gone. Now we’re up to 5,000 pounds,” said Canseco.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, 11 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and 11 to 9 on Sunday.
Tamal-making involves soaking the corn husk, then putting the masa through a mixing machine that turns it into a creamy texture that is spooned into the husk, Canseco said. Then the tamal is filled with pork or chicken.
As I’ve said in past Fiesta food columns, I’ve often had a hard time finding top-notch tamales. The generic frozen supermarket variety just don’t fill the bill. But I’ll be out sniffing around this year, too — first stop Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Canseco’s description of the sopes she makes intrigues me, and natch I’ll be over to taste one. The hand-shaped masa is placed on the grill and when warm is given a lip to create a bowl effect.
Warm beans are then ladled in, and the customer is given a choice of toppings, such as chicken, chorizo, or potato, lettuce, tomato, salsa, or that Mexican stand-by chicharrón — crispy pork rinds.
It’s often said that the most authentic Mexican food at Fiesta can be found at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 227 North Nopal Street.
Because Canseco can’t be everywhere, I always try my luck around town, just to see what’s doing at the De la Guerra mercado or the northside mercado on upper State Street.
If you’re really craving a heavy diet of Fiesta food, you have all week to wreck your diet. El Mercado de la Guerra is packed into a line of the ABCs of Mexican food.
You can’t go wrong. The only problem is that (1) it’s crowded, (2) parking is a tough ticket, in more than one way, and (3) there’s little seating. Just park yourself on the City Hall steps. But it’s fun, and you’re liable to bump into politicians wanting to press the flesh.
The northside mercado is a different story. There’s plenty of space, and you could be lucky enough to find a spot at one of the numerous large tables. This is by and large a family outing, parents at a table, little kids racing around, and teens doing what teens do.
It’s fun, and the food always comes as a surprise, dishes you don’t expect at Fiesta.