It may seem that any day is a good day for tamales. But it's on Christmas Eve that this Latino specialty shines as brightly as an ornament. That's when they are the traditional dish, and lucky for us in Los Angeles, it's possible to find an extraordinary assortment, from all over the map: banana-leaf- wrapped tamales, tamales made of ground fresh corn, jumbo tamales, tiny tamales. Just don't wait until Christmas Eve to buy them: they sell out. And don't microwave. The texture is fresher and lighter if they are steamed.
Nine more for Christmas
This family-run Yucatecan restaurant makes nine Christmas tamales in addition to its regular menu of 30. Christmas fillings include fresh huitlacoche, squash flowers and roasted pasilla chile, each combined with Jack cheese. The classic Yucatecan banana-leaf tamales are filled with chicken, beef or pork seasoned with achiote. Dessert tamales include one with chocolate masa and strawberries.
Christmas tamales are $15 to $47 a dozen at Chichen Itza in the Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 741-1075.
This bakery and deli specializes in Salvadoran tamales. Some are on hand for takeout, but you'll need to call in advance for large orders. Choices include banana-leaf tamales filled with chicken and potato or black beans, and tamales de elote (fresh corn tamales) made without filling.
Tamales are $1.15 each at Panaderia Sabor Latino, 2716 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 734-1535.
With that Oaxacan touch
This small, well-stocked Oaxacan deli makes delicious black mole tamales: flat rectangles of silky masa filled with chicken in a complex sauce that is slightly sweet and spicy, and tamales filled with mole amarillo (yellow mole) and black beans.
Black mole tamales are $1.75 each at Tortilleria y Antojitos Expresion Oaxaquena, 3301 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 766-0721.
A Guatemalan assortment
This Guatemalan restaurant makes five tamales: Tamalito de elote, slightly sweet and wrapped in a corn husk; tamalito de chipilin, riddled with the leaves of the chipilin plant; the pache quetzalteco, made with potatoes, chicken and hot green chile; chuchito, with pork and a strip of mild red pepper in fine, soft masa; and tamal colorado, with chicken or pork.
Tamalitos de chipilin, elote and chuchito are $1.95 each; tamal colorado and pache quetzalteco are $3.50 at the restaurant, $2 takeout, at Las Delicias Chapinas, 3731 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 731-6995.
Crossing the borders
Central American and Mexican tamales are available at this cheery storefront restaurant across from MacArthur Park. The terrific assortment varies; Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Colombian tamales have been on recent menus, along with tamales from regions of Mexico.
Tamales are $1.75 each, or $1.50 for orders of two or more, at Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe, 2124 W. 7th Street, Los Angeles. (213) 487-7474.