King of Tamale

Like Dos Reales (see review,), most Mexican restaurants make their own tamales. But some restaurant owners find the process too time-consuming and labor-intensive, so they buy the stuffed masas from a wholesaler such as John DiCapo, tamale supplier to such places as Chubby’s, Z-Teca and the River Market Brewery.

DiCapo, the 42-year-old son of legendary restaurateur Carl DiCapo, grew up working in his father’s Italian Gardens before deciding that he wanted a career “where the hours were normal and I could have a real life.”

“I tried being a commodities trader, like my brother,” says DiCapo, who runs his Capital Foods business out of a tiny white building downtown. “But he’s a genius and I was more interested in cooking lunch and snacks for the other traders. Finally, I went back to the food business, but on the manufacturing side.” DiCapo’s company started out making arancini, an Italian delicacy of meat-filled rice balls, in 1997. Two years later he added tamales through a licensing agreement with Jim Van Zant III, the grandson of Kansas City’s first tamale mogul: Jim Shepard. DiCapo is now the wholesale manufacturer of Jim’s Famous Hot Tamales.

“Jim Shepard came to Kansas City in the 1920s from Springfield with a tamale recipe and started selling them from a white cart,” DiCapo says. “By the 1940s, he had fifteen or twenty guys out selling the tamales for him, all with carts outfitted with a steamer, a bell and a lantern. The lantern was because these guys would be out all night. One customer of mine remembers coming out of a bar at Ninth and Walnut one night, right after World War II, and buying some hot tamales to eat on his way home.”

The cart business vanished two decades ago “along with the milkman, the vegetable huckster and the ice man,” DiCapo says. But the members of the Van Zant family still make and sell tamales out of their factory in Independence, while DiCapo’s wholesale facility focuses on the restaurant and supermarket business (“We’re in a hundred stores,” he says) and plans to put tamale steamers in a number of area convenience stores by the end of the year. He wants to make the tamales as popular as hot dogs.

“I grew up in the Northeast and I remember those tamale carts,” DiCapo says. “And I loved them. When other kids were waiting for the ice cream man, I’d be waiting for the tamale guy!”

A spicy tamale might taste good with a scoop of tomato-avocado ice cream, but Kevin Cole, the co-owner of Silas and Maddy’s — which opened its third location on June 20 at 119th and Lamar — says he has no plans to make that flavor, even though a customer proposed it for a “flavor of the month” contest.

“We take our customers’ suggestions very seriously,” says Cole, 33, who runs the five-year-old minichain of premium ice cream shops with Cindy England, his business partner and former Gap coworker. “But no one would really want that flavor. We have had great luck with some other contest winners, like Gold Rush, which is made with Oreos, caramel and pecans. Or Berried Treasure, with all kinds of mixed berries.”

Customers at the three Silas and Maddy’s stores (the name comes from Cole’s cat and England’s dog) can propose potential flavors each month; the winner receives a T-shirt and a $5 gift certificate. But not all flavors get Cole’s approval. “At our Lawrence location, we get suggestions for a hemp nut ice cream,” Cole says. “Or beer flavors.”

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