At Beacon Hill’s Cafetal Quilombo, Tamales are the Star

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Beacon Hill has no shortage of great Mexican restaurants. Head down to Baja Bistro for excellent chicken mole enchiladas. Carnitas Michoacan dishes up delicious caldo de res (Mexican beef soup). At the recently opened Tacos Chukis, you’ll find a near-perfect taco adobada. For tamales, however, the place to beat is Cafetal Quilombo, that rare café that offers top-notch espresso as well as tasty food.

Located a satsuma’s throw from Macpherson’s Fruit and Produce on Columbian Way, Quilombo offers traditional Mexican fare such as tacos, quesadillas, tortas, and tostadas, but its specialty is the tamale, the different varieties of filling—mixed vegetable, chiplin, bean and cheese, chicken, pork—written on pieces of scotch tape each morning and pasted to the small dry-erase board behind the counter. Fluffy yet filling, complex in taste yet modest in presentation, Quilombo’s tamales are truly a highlight of The Hill’s cuisine.

Founded in 2015 by Heri Magdaleno and Maria De Luna, who immigrated to West Seattle from Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 2001, the café began as a dream. In Aguascalientes, a city about the size of Seattle, the couple had operated a tortilleria, a small shop specializing in tortillas. After moving to Seattle, however, they were forced to take different work. Heri began work as a maintenance technician for the local coffee company Uptown Espresso. Maria was hired on at the Mayflower Hotel. But their dream was always to work for themselves.

That dream took a long time to realize—twelve years, to be exact, during which time they lived, worked, saved, and raised three sons. Berto, the oldest, attends South Seattle College. Miguel and Manny are both students at Chief Sealth. You can usually find one or more of them behind the counter, taking orders from customers or steaming espresso drinks.

“Some days it’s hard,” said Miguel, who hopes to take over the business someday, “but it’s always worth it. I appreciate our customers because they allow us to stay open and help my family achieve the goal of having a better life.”  

That Quilombo would be able to stay open was not always certain. Their first year, Maria was working days at the café and nights at the hotel, Heri was employed full-time at Uptown, and all three boys were high school-age or younger. To make matters worse, business was slow.

“It was difficult that first year,” Heri told me. “We weren’t making any profit. If we didn’t have help from our kids, we probably would have had to close. It was very hard.”

Miguel Magdaleno and Maria De Luna. (Photo: Alex Gallo-Brown)

Now business is better. They have a loyal base of customers. People in the community have told their neighbors and friends. Maria was able to quit her job at the hotel.

What brought about the change? Part of it is the good coffee that Heri buys directly from Uptown, where he still works. Part of it is the comfortable communal atmosphere. Part of it is simply time. But the biggest factor is almost certainly the tamales. Made by Maria, packaged by her sons, and sold by her husband, they are a true family affair.

What is Maria’s secret? Typically, tamales are made using masa dough, some kind of fat, some kind of broth, a vegetable or meat filling, and corn husks. Maria uses these ingredients, too, but equally important is the feeling with which the tamales are made.

“You can’t be mad when you make tamales,” she told me, smiling. “The secret is love.”

 “She always says, you have to be in good mood to make food,” Heri added. “You have to work with love.”

The Magdaleno-De Luna family has built a business of which they can be proud. After three years, Quilombo has become an anchor of central Beacon Hill, a place where you can come for morning coffee and stay through lunch. The future looks bright for what Miguel calls “the goal of a better life.”

“One of our goals now is to start taking breaks,” Heri told me. “We haven’t taken a weekend off in more than three years.”

They deserve that and a lot more. Fortunately, the shop will stay open staffed by their three sons. And the tamales aren’t going anywhere.

 Alex Gallo-Brown is a writer based in Beacon Hill. He is a member of the outreach and education team of the Fair Work Center.