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Tamale Virtuosity

Tamara's doesn't serve much beyond the masa creations, but really, who could ask for more?

November 12, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Never was a restaurant more justly named than Tamara's Tamale. Tamales are just about the whole story.

The entrees are tamales ("Two's a meal," Tamara claims, "three if you're hungry"). The appetizers are smaller tamales. There are dessert tamales. But no soup, no salad, not even a wood-fired-oven pizza (and we're just outside Marina del Rey here).

Fortunately, Tamara makes good tamales, using a fairly fluffy masa with a good corn flavor and about 30 fillings. There are even fat-free tamales. You might detect a drier texture, but they're pretty convincing as fat-free tamales go.

Tamara's is a plain little room decorated with quite a bit of sentimental Catholic and Hindu devotional art. To tell the truth, it's so small it just barely qualifies as a restaurant. It sells takeout tamales, mostly, either hot or with detailed instructions for warming them at home.

Still, it has a counter with five stools, and just outside the door there's a table with a couple of chairs and benches. And it actually has a beer license.

Some tamales are available only on certain days of the week, and Tamara's can run out of any given tamale, so you consult a blackboard menu to find your choices. They're all made in the classic way, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves.

The varieties the menu calls traditional tamales are all very good. The red-pork chile tamale has a red sauce with a hint of bitterness and usually a green olive or two. The chicken verde includes a rich, tangy mixture of tomatillo sauce and Jack cheese with the chicken.

Finally, there's the traditional sweet tamale, which is a revelation. It has no filling; instead, the masa is sweetened, perfumed with anise, and studded with pineapple bits and raisins.

The appetizer tamales ($1 each) have similar fillings, such as chicken or Jack with red sauce. One is a sweet cinnamon tamale with no filling.

Several of the daily specials might be available on any given day. The most impressive is the Saturday special, with its snappy, fragrant filling of Jack and cilantro pesto. The Wednesday one has a nice chorizo, potato and Jack filling, and the Friday tamale is chicken in a good, punchy Oaxacan mole, not insipidly sweet. This one is steamed in banana leaves.

The Thursday tamale, turkey picadillo (with tomatoes and diced potatoes as well as the omnipresent Jack cheese), is a little bland, but you can improve it with tomatillo or roasted red pepper sauce from a little sauce bar next to the counter. Tuesday's family chicken, is designed for people who want their tamale to be a balanced meal, because it includes tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, green chiles, olives and raisins.

Sunday's tamale uses masa mixed with pumpkin puree and some raisins. I must say, it grew on me, but only a little. On the other hand, I've also had a Sunday tamale when the masa contained chocolate bits. Like the English steamed pudding named spotted dog, it doesn't exactly look like something you'd want to eat, but it's surprisingly good.

The vegetarian tamales include a potato version of the mole tamale, and one with an excellent filling of black beans, corn kernels and soy Jack.

The specialty tamales include jalapenos and Jack (good), a terrific Greek tamale (goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, Greek olives, roasted pine nuts), a decent green corn tamale, a surprisingly bland machaca-filled model, a bitter vegetarian special and a wild mushroom tamale.

Oh, yeah, I said nearly everything here is a tamale. There are some non-tamale desserts. I've never seen the apple pie or pineapple upside-down cake, but the pecan bars are fine, and the lemon cake is a classic, with a bright lemony tang and a crunchy sugar crust. I'd come just for that.

BE THERE

Tamara's Tamale, 13352 W. Washington Blvd., L.A., (310) 305-7714, or fax, (310) 574-3347. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Beer only. Parking lot and street parking. All major credit cards. Tamales, $2 to $3.

What to Get: chicken verde, jalapeno cheese, black bean, cilantro pesto, Greek, sweet and chocolate tamales, lemon cake.

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