Jaime Flores, Owner of Tamale Hut Cafe, 8300 Cermak Road in North Riverside, on Friday, February 6, 2015. | Chandler West/Staff Photographer

To motorists passing by on Cermak Road, the Tamale Hut Café appears to be a nondescript Mexican restaurant sitting in a strip mall. 

However, thanks to the vision of its owner, Jaime Flores, the eatery at 8300 Cermak Road has become a mecca of culture for the near west suburbs.  

It’s also a BYOB, with a liquor store next door, and serves hand-made Mexican specialties that diners will not find anywhere else. Besides 10 varieties of its signature tamales, the café serves tingas, a traditional dish from southern Mexico consisting of shredded chicken, topped with chipotle sauce, shredded cheese and sour cream, served on a tortilla chip. 

The café also serves another traditional Mexican staple not found at other restaurants — abondiga, a meatball soup. Flores claims that the normal taco and burrito restaurants do not offer these dishes because they are too labor-intensive to prepare. 

Flores opened the café on Jan. 16, 2006. The first challenge he faced was utilizing its 2,000-square-foot space. The place was too big for a restaurant that primarily caters its food. When he did the build out, Flores installed a large metal grid on one wall, where local artists can display their work. He doesn’t charge them rent and artists get to keep all the proceeds from sales

Currently on display are the striking nature photographs of former café employee Jennifer Quezada. Sales have been brisk for the talented young photographer from North Riverside. Displaying photographs and paintings is such a good deal for the artists, it’s no wonder the gallery’s waiting list extends into 2019.

Besides visual art, Flores started hosting a monthly local author series. 

“A new author reads and sells his books,” Flores said. “So far, we’ve had 70 authors.” 

The reading sessions are on Saturdays at 7 p.m. and followed by an open mike night. Since its inception, more than 300 brave souls have gotten up to perform. Along those same literary lines, the cafe hosts a writers’ group on the second Saturday of each month, where about a dozen writers come together in the afternoon to read and critique each other’s work.  

There is also a monthly Comic Night at the cafe. Lately, performers from Chicago’s legendary comedy incubator, Second City, have been coming to the café to try out new material. 

During their last visit, the place was packed with 60 people. One of the comics told Flores, “It was a great audience and there were no distractions.” 

Café patrons are expected to be respectful to performers. After all, it’s a café, not a bar.

Finally, the café has music nights on Fridays. 

“We don’t charge a cover,” Flores said. “The musicians play for tips.”

The first musical performance was in March 2009. The singer-songwriter was Cedes (rhymes with lettuce) Buck. She was also featured at the café’s most recent music night on Jan. 30. 

Buck, with Jim Goelitz on guitar and Bill Kavanagh on bass, sang tunes from the 1960s and ’70s, along with some of her catchy originals.

Buck started her songwriting in an unlikely way. As a speech pathologist at Morton West High School in Berwyn, she found composing and playing songs really helped her reach students with profound speech disabilities. They sing along with her songs written in Spanish and English. Just recently, she said, a young girl with Down syndrome was motivated to practice her speech by Buck’s guitar playing. 

Though shy by nature, Buck doesn’t hold her back when performing. She started her set with a lively original that welcomed the crowd to her “world full of anxieties” where she hopes to “meditate instead of medicate.” Another crowd-pleaser was her “Snow No Mo’ Blues” commemorating last year’s “Snowmageddon.”

After she retires from helping teenagers, Buck plans to use her music therapy skills to help seniors suffering from dementia.  In the meantime, she is always welcome to perform at a café that might look like a typical taco joint but is so much more.  

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