Carlos Hutchinson is aware that the name of his restaurant is difficult for Americans to say. But when he opened Tlaolli (tlah-oh-lee), the tiny tamale restaurant on Indy's Eastside, he chose this ancient word for corn (from the Nahuatl language of Mesoamerican natives). "It was the common food for Indians across the Americas," he explains in thickly-accented English. It was the ingredient that linked native cultures — significant because his made-from-scratch menu was created to link Americans to traditional family recipes of Mexico — and is of course the star of his menu-defining tamales.
Hutchinson, from the Mexican border city of Monterrey until relocating to Carmel in 2005, spent six years working for Indianapolis Fruit, growing their Hispanic market. When the job was phased out, he was considering ways to go out on his own when friends and family urged him to bring to the public the traditional Mexican dishes he'd been sharing with them for years. "I have three daughters — in Mexico I traveled a lot for my job, but when I was home I was with my family in the kitchen, cooking."
And Tlaolli as it now stands has been a family effort: Hutchinson's youngest daughter lives in the schoolhouse-converted condominiums behind the restaurant, and through the Englewood Community Development Corporation steered him toward the location (the building was refurbished in part with grants from the ECDC, which now has a torta on the menu named in its honor). The daughter, a chef at another restaurant, shared her experience to help him navigate the tricky road of translating home-cooking into a business. She is a graphic designer and created Tlaolli's logo and website.
In addition to family, Hutchinson is now surrounded by a community of business-friends and willing menu-testers. He makes custom tacos for employees at the library branch next door, and they help him decide whether to make the new creation a permanent menu item. From the Englewood Christian Church to Pogue's Run Grocery (the first location to sell his tamales), he sees his business as part of a community effort to improve the area, and relays with obvious pride the plans for a future coffee shop and park opening adjacent to the property.
While the Tlaolli menu was born from tamales, it has grown to include tortas, tacos, quesadillas, Mexican goulash, moles, and soups. "I make something new, give someone a taste, and they buy it," he says of the introduction of new items. Some specials run on certain days, as limited space restricts how many dishes he can make at once. His tamales are made from olive oil rather than lard, a decision stemming from Hutchinson's own health concerns. He offers many gluten-free items, as well as vegetarian and vegan options. Guacamole is made-to-order, while-you-wait. He has modified the heat of traditional recipes to suit American tastes, but stays true to a goal of sharing with his customers the layering of flavors in Mexican cuisine.
Tlaolli has limited hours, especially in winter months (Tuesday - Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.), and is primarily designed for takeout (a few seats are available at a small bar) — so plan accordingly. Hutchinson hopes to add delivery service soon to businesses with a minimum order, and currently caters parties and events.