Tamales helped put Alejandra Roman’s son through college. Now, tamales are supporting her entire family.
The owner of Mr. Tamal left her job with Yakima County earlier this year to open the authentic Mexican food restaurant in Selah. At this point, she’s wondering how she ever worked for anyone else.
“Cooking has always been my passion — I just love it,” said Roman, who opened Mr. Tamal in April with her husband, Rogelio. “After talking about it for a few months, I decided, ‘I can do this instead.’”
Prior to opening the restaurant at 101 S. First St., Roman had become known around town for her homemade tamales. Years ago, she started making tamales to sell to friends and co-workers as a way to help cover medical bills for her son, who underwent six surgeries for a cranial-facial disorder at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Bradley is now 22 years old and attending the University of Arizona — thanks in large part to his mother’s famous tamales.
“When I first started making the tamales, I just told everyone, ‘this is what I can do,’” said Roman, 46, a graduate of Wapato High School and Yakima Valley College. “More people were asking about them, so I started making four or five dozen per week. I know how to cook a lot of other things, and that got me thinking about opening a restaurant.”
Roman had worked as a juvenile court interpreter with the county for the past 14 years — a job she really liked — but she said she couldn’t see a long-term future there.
However, she had no problem seeing herself cooking tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tortas and chile rellenos from scratch every day (not to mention tamales).
“I learned all of these recipes when I was little, so I always saw my mom and sisters cooking huge portions of food,” said Roman, the youngest of 12 children who has four kids of her own. “This is what ‘real’ Mexican food tastes like.”
Roman and her family do all of the prep work at the restaurant, preparing everything from menudo and pozole to freshly made carnitas and chorizo. They even make their own sour cream.
“What we do here is different because we make everything from scratch,” she said. “We cut our own meat, peel our own potatoes and make our own tortillas and salsas. It takes a little extra time, but our customers keep telling us it’s worth the wait.”
Roman said she couldn’t be happier working in a kitchen rather than the courthouse where she spent the previous 14 years. Prior to that, she was in college for seven years.
She hasn’t had this kind of freedom in more than 20 years, and opening Mr. Tamal has helped her remember what is truly important to her.
“This is what I love to do, and this is how I want to raise my little girls,” she said. “I may not make a lot of money, but at least I can work for myself.”
Roman’s daughters are 2 and 9 years old, while her second-oldest son is 19. She has two sisters and a brother in Union Gap, and her mother travels back and forth between Selah and their hometown of Torreon, Mexico.
Three of her sisters and her mom used to own a restaurant back home, so Roman believes she has learned from the best.
With Mr. Tamal, she has been able to apply her four decades’ worth of culinary knowledge and add some spice to her growing small business.
“I really want this to be successful because it’s everything I’ve always wanted,” she said. “I’m doing this because of all my friends who supported my family by buying tamales for so many years. I just cook with my heart and I think people can tell.”