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Too Hot to Handle

Side Dishes: Community rallies around destroyed Hot Tamale Co.

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Things haven’t been easy for Moana Dixon lately. On the night of Friday, August 4, Hot Tamale Co., the Mexican take-out eatery in Johnson that she owns with her mother, founder and executive chef Cheryl Kaheleilani, burned to the ground. The building was also their rental home.

On the night of the fire, Kaheleilani was in the hospital, but Dixon kept the kitchen open late to cook a number of orders, including a regular customer’s birthday dinner for a party of more than 10.

“I was cooking chips,” remembers Dixon. “I had a whole bunch of orders — we make everything fresh — I dropped in a batch of chips and I turned away from the stove and thought, Shoot! I have to turn it off really quickly. Someone asked me a question, and I got distracted and stepped away from the stove.”

The grease fire quickly moved across the deck of the house. Before long, Dixon heard the propane tank out back hissing. She grabbed her dog and purse from upstairs and fled just before the house became engulfed in flames.

“I thought, Holy shit, that’s a fire,” she says. Indeed, firefighters from eight different departments battled the blaze — which spread to the house next door — for close to seven hours.

“It’s just a 100 percent loss,” says Dixon. All of Hot Tamale’s equipment is gone, including cookware and ingredients purchased from Mexico. The only thing left standing is the company’s eye-catching sign. Since the family rented its home and restaurant space, it lacked insurance beyond the liability policy necessary to participate in farmers markets.

But, though Hot Tamale’s building is gone, the tamales live on. With help from the staff and donated kitchen space at the Hub Pizzeria and Pub, also in Johnson, Hot Tamale sold its wares last week at farmers markets in Johnson, Jeffersonville and Essex, despite heavy rain. Until Dixon can find a new space of her own, the Hub will host Hot Tamale nights every Monday — when it would otherwise be closed — serving tacos, burritos and margaritas.

Hot Tamale is accepting donations of local produce, meat, dairy and eggs to keep the family cooking, but monetary donations are vital. Immediately following the blaze, Dixon set up a donation button connected to PayPal on the Hot Tamale website. Now, however, she prefers that donors give to her Three Revolutions crowdfunding account, titled “Up from the Ashes.” To collect the donations promised there, she must achieve at least 80 percent of her $7500 goal by September 24. However, Dixon says she actually needs 10 times that amount to cover her losses.

While weathering the hardships of losing her home, Dixon is already making plans. In April, she told Seven Days of her search for a location for a full-service restaurant. She says now that she and a still-recovering Kaheleilani will work harder than ever to find a space in a more heavily trafficked area than Johnson — probably Stowe.

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