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The Hottest Tamales

March 05, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD

When I was small, tamales meant the compact XLNT jobbies my mother sometimes used to boil up for lunch. They took forever to cook, but slid neatly out of their white-plastic cocoons: fat, yellow pupae of wet cornmeal that collapsed in on themselves with a stab or two of a fork, puffs of chile-flavored steam. Somewhat later, tamales meant the numbingly sweet green-corn tamales at El Cholo, then the limp pillows Tommy's drowned in 40-weight chili.

At my first real job, as a proofreader at an alternative newsweekly, one of the other staff members used to make untold dozens of tamales at home to sell at the office, like a one-man bake sale. We all used to buy them--hey, tamales!--but they were sort of awful, and by the end of each month the freezer compartment of the office refrigerator was full of tamales that people had somehow "forgotten" to label.

There were the mysterious Central American tamales you could get down around Pico and Alvarado--lapdog-size Nicaraguan nacatamals , wrapped in banana leaves, stuffed with olives and chicken legs and whole boiled eggs; the sweet, little Salvadoran tamales; the Guatemalan sweet-corn tamales drowning in a lake of tart cream. Hip caterers in the early '80s, at the endless stream of weddings I ended up going to, were overfond of tamale-looking things that seemed all to be tricked out with salmon mousse. I don't think I had a decent Mexican tamale until I was well into my twenties.

This put me at a relative disadvantage. I discovered the tamales at Cinco Puntos, a swell place in East L.A. where they also sell good chicharrones, and fresh hog's blood for sausages, and delicious hand-patted tortillas, and made up for lost time, I thought. I'd bring a couple dozen to gatherings at my mother-in-law's; they'd get eaten, but the talk was always of the great tamales that somebody's mother at work made, or a great little tamale place in Montebello that got torn down, or the green-chile-cheese ones from the Christmas of '67. I liked tamales just fine, but associatively, I couldn't compete.

A few weekends ago, I cruised around the Eastside with my wife and her grandmother Lupe, picking up tamales at some places she remembered from the old days and at some that I had heard about, and we took armfuls back to grandmother's house, where we numbered them, reheated them, and tasted them blind.

Lupe liked the fluffy texture of Cinco Punto's masa , also the nice smoky flavor of the red chile with the meat; she thought the dough of La Indiana, a famous East L.A. place down near the freeway, was just a little dry, though the green chile was delicious. (La Indiana is truly one of the better places in town.) The batch of red-pork tamales from La Moderna, a Santa Fe Springs bakery, were somewhat coarse, not quite up to Cinco Punto's--I liked the stewy green pork tamales a bit better than she did, I guess. The tamales from Mary's, in Whittier, were too wet, and had a strong, musky herbal flavor; tamales from a place called Grandma's, in Montebello, were too dry. There was a place on First Street whose name somehow got lost, and another on Whittier, but you probably wouldn't have wanted to go to them anyway. (All of these tamale joints are to-go only, by the way.)

Actually, I thought they were all pretty tasty--maybe it was the tamales themselves, maybe it was the blissed-out tamale high--but Lupe seemed less inspired to go back to any of the places we had visited than to make tamales again herself. (If they turn out even half as good as her nopales -pork stew, they'll be worth waiting for.)

But that day we were too late for the place that makes the best tamales on the Eastside: Juanito's Tamales, which closes on Sundays dead at noon. Juanito's is a nice place, a cool, cavernous storefront on a residential street near East L.A. College, that sells nothing but tamales-to-go, but a lot of those. If you don't call first, Juanito's is likely to be out of the fine sweet tamales, or the delicious tamales stuffed with a spicy heap of sauteed green chiles and stuff. Juanito's employs the two-cornhusk technique, in which thin sheets of masa adhere to the husks as you unroll them, slightly chewy and sweetly fragrant of corn, and then the inside, the tamale itself, is thin-walled and tender, barely containing its savory payload: say, great gushes of pork stewed in an intense red-chile sauce, enough to engulf the masa when a fork breaches the dough . . . a tamale to remember.

Cinco Puntos, 3300 Brooklyn Place (at Indiana), East Los Angeles, (213) 261-4084.

Grandma's Tamales, 2606 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello, (213) 728-4137.

Juanito's Tamales, 4214 E. Floral Drive, East Los Angeles, (213) 268-2365.

La Indiana Tamales, 1142 S. Indiana St., East Los Angeles, (213) 262-4682

La Moderna Bakery, 8035 1/2 S. Norwalk Blvd., Santa Fe Springs, (213) 695-9414.

Mary's Tortilleria, 10608 E. Whittier Blvd., Whittier, (310) 699-2838.

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