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Taking a tamale tour of Los Angeles

The hallowed holiday tradition can leave a person filled with Christmas joy.

December 21, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Sandi Romero, a longtime community activist, opened Mamas Hot Tamales Cafe as a nonprofit training center for food cart vendors. Every Latin country has its own version of the traditional dish, she said.
Sandi Romero, a longtime community activist, opened Mamas Hot Tamales… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

This already figured to be one of the biggest calorie-consuming weeks of the year for me, so maybe the idea of a tamale tasting tour yesterday wasn't the smartest idea I've ever had.

But I can tell you as I sit here, plump, satisfied and ready for a nap, that I have no regrets.

It's Los Angeles, after all, and for many folks, tamales are part of the Christmas tradition. I figured that in the interest of public service, someone had to step up and do the difficult work of sampling some of the best. So I called an expert to see if she would assist me, and Sandi Romero of Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe, across from MacArthur Park, was happy to oblige.

We began at La Mascota Bakery on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights, a family operation since 1952.

"Do you smell that?" I asked Romero after we parked half a block away and got hit by the glorious scent.

Michelle Barton, granddaughter of La Mascota founders Ygnacio and Vidala Salcedo, said she has to hire as many as 10 extra employees this time of year. Near the entrance of her restaurant, mothers hoisted up their children to look through the window and into the kitchen, where four women handled mountains of masa on the tamale assembly line.

Barton said she'll open at 4 a.m. on Friday and 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve to accommodate the ravenous hordes, and she expects lines to run out the door and down the street, as they always do at this time of year. Olivia Minjares, a loyal customer, said she's been among those who waited for two hours beginning at 3 a.m., and it was worth it. When Barton warned a customer from San Diego to drive up before the Christmas rush, the customer said she liked the line because she meets new people and shares recipes while waiting.

Meanwhile, customer Ed Kweskin, who lugged three or four dozen tamales out of La Mascota on Tuesday morning, said he's been driving up from San Clemente for about 10 years. He confessed there have been years when he pulled over to the side of the road before getting home, tore open a bag, and devoured a tamale or two.

Why not buy tamales closer to home?

"When you've been to the top of the mountain," Kweskin said, "you don't want to go back down to the valley."

Mama Romero, who was a young lass of 4 when she began helping her great-grandmother Alicia make tamales, gave raves to La Mascota's tamales. Some tamales are all clam shell and no pearl, but these had criminally moist and fluffy masa, with satisfying payoffs of green chile and cheese in one and island pineapple in the other. And the tamales were under a buck-fifty apiece.

A few miles east on Whittier we hit Lolita's Tamales, a smaller joint with a five-star rating on Yelp and a sign that boasts, "Making Our Tamales From Scratch Since 1957." Customers Bill and Isabel Walters were in line for theirs, and Bill said they've been driving over from Montebello for years, having found nothing better.

But it took half an hour for us to get through a short line only to find that they were out of several tamales. Is Lolita's too popular for its own good? We liked the pork tamale with green sauce, and I made a note to myself to go back after Christmas and see if perhaps Lolita's is best when it's not getting slammed.

On the way to our next stop, Romero said tamales go back hundreds of years, with every Latin country doing its own version and all the traditions flourishing today in Los Angeles. In her own childhood, tamales weren't an everyday food, but when Christmas rolled around, there was no discussion. They called the family together and they ate tamales, honoring traditions that began in Mexico.

But there are no rules when it comes to tamales. Romero spoke of a pastrami tamale, with meat provided by Langer's Deli. And at Mama's Cafe, Rocio Ramirez, who runs the day-to-day operation, makes peanut butter and jelly tamales at the request of a grandchild.

"They're pretty good," said Romero, a longtime community activist who began Mama's as a nonprofit training center for the area's food cart vendors.

Our third stop on the tamale tour was another winner — Mom's Tamales in Lincoln Heights. Owner Israel Briseno said he used to go around selling tamales out of the trunk of his car — tamales made by his mother, Maria Morales. People loved them, so guess what. He and the family opened the restaurant, and it was such a hit that Mom's was featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."

If you order the beef tamale with red sauce at Mom's, you'll leave with a smile. Trust me.

Last stop on the Christmas tamale tasting tour was Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe, and I'm not just saying this because Mama herself was my guide, but you can't do better than this place. We had a Salvadoran-style black bean and herbs tamale, a Colombian guava cheese tamale, and my favorite of the day — a Mexican-style beef picadillo tamale.

If you want tamales for Christmas Eve or Christmas, you better order immediately. (Mama's is at 213-487-7474, La Mascota is at 323-263-5513, Mom's is at 323-226-9383 and Lolita's is at 323-724-4222).

I, on the other hand, may not eat again until after the holidays.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

("Dreams & Schemes," Steve Lopez's 10-year collection of Times columns, is available at http://www.latimes.com/store).

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