In Texas, people take their tamales very seriously.

The tamale is a humble regional specialty that celebrates family traditions and the simple glory of masa (corn dough) mixed with meat, cheese, or chili. During the holiday season, they are in particularly high demand, since the portable food is the perfect conduit for spreading cheer and sharing heirloom recipes.

Yesterday, the third annual Tamales! Holiday Festival took place at Pearl—an impressive gastro-centered development located just north of downtown San Antonio, on the site of the former Pearl Brewing Company.

More than 40 tamale cooks lined the lanes and squares sitting in the shadows of the building that, not too long ago, produced Pabst Blue Ribbon. Small family restaurants dished up their tamales side-by-side with students from Pearl’s Culinary Institute of America campus; and notable local chefs dabbled in inventive riffs that explored both the Latin American and South Texas lineage of the dish

As we made our way through the husk- and leaf-wrapped offerings, some truths emerged: 1) The tamale, for all its deliciousness, is an unattractive-looking snack; and 2) Most, if not all, tamales are damn tasty. We also learned that the single most important factor separating a good tamale from a great tamale is moisture.

Beyond moisture, balance is also crucial. Local chef Johnny Hernandez—owner of La Gloria Icehouse at the Pearl—produced a series of banana leaf-wrapped tamales stuffed with beans, chicken mole, and pork. The light, fluffy masa achieved by Hernandez soaked in the flavor of his additions, imparting bold flavors to each bite. Standard tamales, wrapped in a husk and packed tight, regularly have a grainy texture which doesn’t quite allow the flavors of each ingredient to permeate the package.

Examples from Delicious Tamale—a large-scale operation that sells more than 2 million tamales a year—served as a counterpoint to Hernandez’s masterpiece. They were perfectly formed, but they lacked the nuances that made La Gloria’s offerings so triumphant.

Click through the gallery above to see some of the most memorable scenes from the tamale festival.