Tamales filled with collard greens and smoked turkey or shrimp … – Houston Chronicle

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LaToya Larkin, chef and owner of Black Girl Tamales with her son, Xaviar Whatley, hold a package of her collard greens smoked turkey tamales at her deli Mango Deli and Cafe in Houston.
LaToya Larkin, chef and owner of Black Girl Tamales dishes out collard greens for her tamales.
Collard green tamales being assembled by LaToya Larkin, chef and owner of Black Girl Tamales.
Collard green tamales.
A package of Caribbean jerk chicken tamales from Black Girl Tamales.
LaToya Larkin hasn’t stopped making tamales since she was 8 years old.
The Spring resident launched Black Girl Tamales in September 2019, but Larkin jokes that it started when she was her grandmother’s “little sous chef” rolling masa and stuffing corn husks with chicken or pork.
After nearly two decades of cooking in kitchens and teaching in classrooms, Larkin, 41, is now focused on turning an occasional side hustle selling tamales into a full-blown business that has grown since the pandemic began.
Black Girl Tamales is as much a nod to Larkin’s grandmother Rosa as it is about tamales combining Mexican and soul food traditions. The “Soul Food Tamale” of collard greens with smoked turkey, Creole sausage, jambalaya and boudin flavors are, as Larkin puts it, “a testament to staying true to who I am.”
“I know what people are thinking when they see me selling tamales,” Larkin said. “I’m Black, and I make tamales. That’s just what it is, and I’m not hiding from it.”
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Larkin’s best-selling tamale started when she had leftovers from a Mother’s Day brunch and decided to mix collard greens and smoked turkey meat with the corn dough. She has sold a range of soul-food-inspired flavors, but as her grandmother taught her, masa is the most important part.
“(Making tamales costs) cash money,” Larkin said. “But if the masa isn’t just right, it should go in the garbage.”
The Texan’s culinary career started at the Art Institute of Houston, where she earned her associate’s degree, and she spent eight years cooking in restaurants, including two at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in The Woodlands as a pastry chef.
It wasn’t until 2019 that Larkin said she considered focusing on tamales full-time. The demand during the pandemic picked up and for a few months, she eventually ran operations out of a commercial kitchen. 
This fall, she leased the Mango Deli space in an Energy Corridor office building and renamed it Mango Deli & Cafe to continue growing her business. She recently won a $15,000 grant from Heinz, which funded a grant program focused on supporting Black-owned businesses.
“It’s a very unique, specific product,” said Terry Kranz, director of sales at Dallas-based Sunrise Mexican Foods, which packages larger orders for Black Girl Tamales. “Just look at the ingredients.”
Larkin’s fusion of traditional Mexican and soul food flavors is a common theme in the South. Black chefs and home cooks have a long history of putting their own twists on recipes, from combining Creole and Chinese ingredients in dishes like yaka mein or even the humble street taco brimming with barbecue. In Houston, diners can find gumbo-stuffed quesadillas or even oxtail tamales.
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The pandemic pushed her to grow Black Girl Tamales with the onset of indoor dining restrictions and an increased demand for ordering food to go, Larkin said.
In 2020, Houstonian Karen Nickerson became a loyal customer after reading about Larkin’s tamales in a Facebook post promoting Black-owned businesses.
“What would you want to eat in the African American community? Barbecue. Fried fish. But tamales? We don’t do tamales,” Nickerson said.
She’s been ordering Black Girl Tamales ever since and often buys enough to freeze any extras. While she’s tasted versions with crawfish étouffée and gumbo from the brand, Nickerson said her favorite is the best-selling collard greens with smoked turkey.
“It makes you think about cornbread and a side of collards, but you’re eating it with one bite,” Nickerson said. “It reminds me of my mom’s cooking.”
While the north Houston resident said she lives close to the popular Alamo Tamales, supporting a fellow Black woman was just as important as the quality of the tamales themselves.
“Not to discount other chefs and restaurants, but they were familiar,” Nickerson said. “Black Girl Tamales is nowhere in the norm and that’s what I enjoyed.”
Bao Ong is a restaurant columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
By Bao Ong, Kirkland An