It’s not in Frelard, but the lard-free tamales are fantastic. Here’s how to find it — and the moving story of one owner’s family journey.
Frelard Tamales isn’t in the between-Fremont-and-Ballard Seattle neighborhood of its name, nor are the tamales all free of lard. The storefront, decked out with lacy, multicolored papel picado banners, is actually in Green Lake. Five kinds of tamales are made here, with two kinds of masa — one with pork fat, one without — to make everyone happy.
Frelard’s pork and chicken tamales get masa made with lard, in the traditional way. The pork are good, especially when doused with spicy house-made red salsa. The chicken tamales are spectacularly satisfying — the masa creamy and rich, the filling a little limey-spicy from the tomatillo salsa that the bird’s cooked in, the whole thing tasting like perfect chicken soup in a plump little package. You might eat it all before thinking to add any extras.
But even avowed meat fans should try Frelard Tamales’ lard-free vegetarian and vegan tamales. The masa here tastes distinctly of the corn with which it’s made; it’s nearly sweet, not too dense, but still luxurious and filling. The bean-and-cheese version mixes melty Monterey Jack with lush, gooey house-made pinto beans. The vegan fajita-veggies tamales taste of fresh, almost caramelized onion and bell pepper. One of these might be your surprise favorite — at a busy lunch hour, sometimes they run out while waiting for more to steam.
For now, Frelard Tamales is just a window, to-go only, but that’s a big step for owners Osbaldo Hernandez and Dennis Ramey. The name originates from where they live and started the business in 2015, bringing their tamales to farmers markets. (They still do, selling at the Fremont Sunday Market and, summertimes, in South Lake Union.) Just this past June, they made their brick-and-mortar dream a reality. Another June dream come true: Hernandez and Ramey also got married that month, after being together for four years.
On the phone, Hernandez catches himself calling Ramey “my husband” and stops to laugh — it still sounds funny to his newlywed ears. He says Ramey is “the brains of the business when it comes to finances … he keeps me on my toes if I don’t give him receipts!” He laughs again. They do catering as well, and they both have full-time jobs. Ramey’s a cancer-research scientist in the immunotherapy lab at Seattle Children’s (and just got a promotion, Hernandez proudly notes). Hernandez oversees three community-resource centers for Lutheran Community Services Northwest, serving those without homes or “whatever life struggles,” including refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers.
They’re busy guys, and the person who takes your order might be Hernandez’s mom, Evangelina Sahagun. He’s swift to give her culinary credit — the whole enterprise rests upon her recipes. “She’s a hero,” he says. And before her came another tamalera on the other side of the family, Hernandez’s paternal grandmother, whom everybody calls Mamá Cuca — “the foundation,” he says. “She looks just like the grandma in ‘Coco’!” he laughs. Mamá Cuca might be there helping when you stop by, too.
Flyers at Frelard Tamales’ Dutch door urge all due haste in preordering your holiday tamales (“We sell out every year”). Others read “MAKE TAMALES NOT WALLS.”
Hernandez’s family is from outside Puerto Vallarta. His father first came to the United States to do seasonal farm work in 1985, picking fruit and vegetables in Eastern Washington. His dad met his mom in the late ’80s, continuing to travel back and forth to the U.S. to make money. Eventually, “It was too much time away from the family,” Hernandez says. His father got residency through a post-Reagan era amnesty; the rest of the family applied for visitors’ visas three times, and were three times denied. Hernandez came with no status, crossing the border in a semitruck with his 4-year-old brother in 2002; he was age 12. “The whole journey coming here was definitely tough,” he says. “It was scary.”
By that time, Hernandez’s father was working at the Azteca restaurant in downtown Bellevue. After his mom made her way here, she sold her tamales to the neighbors. They saved up and bought a condo. Hernandez started seventh grade with English limited to the numbers one through seven; by high school, he was in advanced-placement classes. He calls his “amazing, amazing teachers” in the Bellevue Public Schools “angels along the way.” He got high praise himself at Interlake High School in 2007 when he organized the group ELITES — Estudiantes Latinos Internacionales Trabajando por una Educación Superior, or International Latino Students Working Toward Higher Education, finding support for his fellow students in exactly that. He went to Seattle University prior to getting his legal residency in 2011, so he was unable to get financial aid. His mom’s tamales paid for his books. Hernandez then worked as a high-school teacher himself, in Texas, at what he calls “the intersection of immigration and poverty … it was really, really powerful.”
Hernandez says he’s “lived in the shadows of the immigration system,” and now he’s not afraid of “people knowing where we stand” — hence, the flyers along with the tamales. He calls President Trump’s reported plans to bar all migrants, including asylum-seekers, from entering the U.S. at the southern border, “inhumane … We can’t be a country that turns our backs against the most vulnerable. Immigrants make us stronger and safer. The American colonies were founded by those seeking refuge and a better home.”
Talking about Frelard Tamales, Hernandez says, “That story of the immigrant journey in this country is really what defines my family and what we do.”
What he and his husband and his mom will do next, together, is create a sit-down place in the Green Lake space, with drinks and an expanded menu. This’ll happen “as soon as finances allow,” Hernandez hopes — maybe a dream for next spring.
Frelard Tamales, Mexican; 6412 Latona Ave. N.E. (Green Lake), Seattle; 206-370-9296; frelardtamales.com; Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; if you like, order ahead by phone, text or online; specials like posole or chiles rellenos are available most Wednesdays — check facebook.com/pg/FrelardTamales (and if they have guacamole, be sure to get it!)