Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The windows at B&B Tamales fog as steam rises from the kitchen’s 12-burner stove, which is in near-constant use to satisfy the towering orders for Christmas tamales.
Bernice Fernandez, the business’ owner and one of the B’s in B&B, opened orders on Sept. 1 for the holiday season and had to close them by Oct. 20. Now, customers steadily stream into the small yellow building on the South Side to buy extras, if they’re available. A line can form rapidly in the small space between the counter and the front door.
Customers might have to wait, warns a sign written by Bernice’s husband, Jesse.
“You see these tamales are hand made and it’s hard to keep up with the high demand,” cautions the yellow sign posted next to the register. “We just can’t make them that fast.”
The restaurant is littered with these kinds of handwritten notes, authored or illustrated by Jesse. One used to show a man bent over, dripping with sweat, apologizing to customers because the restaurant had no more tamales to sell, Bernice recalled.
“I have to be real careful how I word the signs so people won’t take our time,” Jesse said. “A lot of people will come up and say, ‘My mother used to make this in Mexico,’ or ask, ‘Do you make any red ones or green ones?’ and here I am [needing to respond] and the tamales are burning.”
B&B is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but the restaurant sometimes runs out of tamales by 1 p.m., Bernice said.
She estimates the kitchen makes 200 pounds of masa each day – all by hand, she proudly adds. Every hour, the B&B cooks, most of whom are family members, add fillings to that masa to create 100 to 150 tamales.
B&B didn’t always specialize in its namesake menu item. When Bernice and her sister-in-law Betty F. Garza, the other B in the eatery’s name, opened the restaurant 36 years ago, the women started by selling tacos, chalupas, and menudo.
But tamales soon became the star on the menu, Bernice said. Both she and Betty grew up learning to make them and perfecting their craft.
“The recipe comes a little bit from my mom, a little bit from my grandma, my mother-in-law,” Bernice said.
She and Betty found the shop’s location on Mayfield Boulevard, near South Park Mall, close to four decades ago. The building was previously home to another tamaleria that 84-year-old Bernice used to visit when she was growing up.
In 1983, the sisters-in-law opened their shop, paying less than $150 to rent the space. A few years into the business, Betty passed away, but Bernice kept cooking and soon brought in her children and now her grandchildren to help fill the seemingly never-ending orders.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Jesse arrived at B&B at 2:30 a.m. and planned to return at midnight to start his next day of work.
Amid the rush close to the holiday season, everyone takes off time when they can. Jesse relieves his wife of close to 60 years when possible so she can sneak away to play bingo. B&B is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Bernice uses some of that time to go bowling. (Her high score is 221, although she normally bowls closer to 130.)
B&B Tamales is a family affair. The kitchen is often packed with kids and grandkids spreading masa across delicate corn husks. Customers, too, have become regular figures at B&B, counting on Bernice and her family to make tamales for their own family gatherings over the years.
The restaurant’s tamales have traveled long distances – customers often pick up orders to take out of state. One customer purchased a dozen tamales to take to a family meal in Alaska.
Over the last 36 years, B&B’s reputation has spread. On a plane ride a few years ago, Bernice sat next to a stranger who asked what she did for work. She told him about B&B, but he already knew of her tamales.
“We start talking and he said, ‘Oh, you’re very, very popular,'” Bernice said.
Later, her seatmate warned her that Delia’s, a popular tamaleria in the Rio Grande Valley, could soon expand into San Antonio.
“I said, ‘Who’s Delia?’ I’m not afraid of Delia,” Bernice recounted, laughing.