Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
-Mississippi Delta Tamales in Central IL
I love the off the beaten paths food stops that exist in every corner and crevice of our country. It was late May in 2007 when I made my first visit to a place that became one of my favorite finds while on the roads and byways of America. I was en route to some hippie fest near Peoria in a town called Chillicothe and was led to a place in nearby Sparland, IL from some people in the know. Back in 2007 Willie's Tamales sat in an abandoned gas station located at the corner of Routes 29 and 17 and cooked BBQ outside during summer. Willie Smith has been known around Peoria for his Mississippi Delta Tamales for some time now. I have since made my much anticipated visit back since my first visit here and came to see that Willie's had come up.
a diamond in central Illinois
Its no longer an old gas station lot with visible ripped out gas pumps, its been built from the ground up and I for one am really impressed. Willie comes to us from the Mississippi Delta region and he originally moved to Peoria only to go back home and not leave until he perfected the art of the tamale. Perfect it he did! I'm a big tamale eater, have been since I tried my first at 7 years old and I would say I have tried as many tamales as anyone my age. the tamale has so many different variations and methods but the Delta style is my favorite. So much so that I hope to make it down to the Mississippi Delta Tamale Trail sometime this Summer or Fall. If your unfamiliar with this popular regional snack check out the Southern Foodways Alliance special on them right HERE. Its a great piece of work put together by the people over there who do a stellar job with everything they do.
a bundle of Willies famous Delta style tamales
When I first found Willie's back in '07 he was manning the grill and was thrilled to chat me up about his story and the story of what are some of the greasiest, tastiest melt in your mouth tamales I have ever tasted. Willy uses 100% corn meal and the spicing is perfect, a lil on the hot side like it should be and there's no way you can eat just one so they come by the bundle and cost $6 for six of them. The tamales are what made Willie a well known name around this area but he does up alot of other real good things down there in Central Illinois. The area down there is lucky to have him around, we have no options here in Chicago for authentic Delta style tamales that I am aware of. So if anyone out there with an old family recipe is reading this, come on thru, we need you. It's a shame I cant get to Willies every weekend.
Delta Tamales are usually made with beef and heavily spiced
Inside of Willies with a bar area and some tables for dining in
Willie has been around for a while, its good to see he's got this Sparland spot
When Willie's first opened they were doing all the cooking outside in the smoker and grill which can be seen in the pic up at the very bottom of this story. But since they now have a building with electricity, some space and all that they also have an aquarium smoker inside and are smokin' year round. They also have a grill inside but no AC and not a great ventilation system and smoking is allowed so it gets really smokey in there from the grill and cigs. I saw a sign saying they will start cooking outside next week. If you should be in the area this is a great summertime lunch stop.
Taking the sideroads and byways of America leads you to places like Willie's
Willie wasn't in when we were there but the two ladies working took our order and got to work. I went with 2 bunches of Tamales, a butterflied pork chop sandwich and the rib tips. On my first visit here we had a slab of ribs that were phenomenal and I left wishing I got that again instead of the tips which were ok just not like those ribs were. Willie uses mainly fruit tree woods like apple wood when smokin' his BBQ. I couldn't eat the tamales fast enough. A bunch goes for $6 and they are small and pretty easy to eat alot of but still worth it for me since I cant get anything like these in the city.
I had heard that Willie had a few locations in and around Peoria. Willie has always had a food cart located downtown at Adams and Main. Its a very popular lunch stop and aside from the obvious tamales the locals love the butterflied pork chop sandwich. Willie gets the chop from a local butcher and its cut to his liking as you can see in the pic below. It was a great sandwich that had me wanting another as soon as I took my fist bite. It was crisped perfectly and you are able to dress it up with what you want from the condiments bar next to where you order inside.
Butterflied Pork Chop Sandwich
I was so happy to see that Willie's is really rocking these days and is now thee spot to eat around this way. Unless you get off the main interstates and do some exploring you wont come across a place like this which is why I always like to take the byways when traveling on roadtrips. I try to take them as much as time will allow me to and you should too this summer. You never know what you might cruise upon.
What will you find on the roads of America?
Willies Homemade Tamales
194 Railroad Street
Sparland, IL 61565
Willie's Tamale Cart
Located at Adams and Main St