Tamale Safari

Eating our way through every darn tamale in Southern California (and the world?)

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Mama’s Hot Tamales; a diamond in the rough

This was only our fourth stop so far on the Tamale Safari but we feel like we’ve already found our “Tamale Mecca.” The menu at Mama’s Hot Tamales easily exceeds the variety and quality of other places. Read on…

Lemon and Cheese sweet tamale

Rants, Raves, and Reviews:

Rosemary
Tamale heaven is closer than you think. Just ask Mama – or any of the charming servers over at Mama’s Hot Tamales. We tried every Tamale on the day’s menu. From the Peruvian Spinach & Mushroom (made with The Peruvian pepper Aji) to the classic Mexican Pork -they were all divine.

Both red and green salsas are full of flavor and spice

Fresh, firm, savory and a perfect blend of spices, these Tamales are made with love. We were even excited about the chips and salsa…hot and flavorful with the chips fresh and warm. And be sure to stay for dessert -what else but more Tamales -a wonderful treat of pineapple masa that reaffirmed my faith in the concept that if I only had one food to eat on a desert isle, send in the Tamales and make sure that Mama made them.

Magda
Mama’s Hot tamales is one of those places you would never discover unless you lived or worked nearby or like us, were on a mission to discover great tamales. Hopefully Rosemary has already convinced you that this place is a must for anyone who loves tamales.

Now the bad news…
Mama’s is a tiny restaurant with short business hours and sketchy parking. We parked on 8th street at hour-long meters which really didn’t give us time to savor everything. You need more than an hour to try several of these tamales and a cup of their delicious hot chocolate. The restaurant is located across the south side of Macarthur Park but I think parking might be more plentiful on the north side of the park. The best bet is to take the Wilshire bus lines which stop right at the park.

I always thought that I made the best tamales in the world, but I humbly submit a tip of the hat to Mama’s Hot Tamales.

Rosemary Rates

Masa: Rich, firm and savory. Nuff said.

Filling: Mama got it right -from traditional to creative, Mama’s fillings are tasty and varied.

Presentation: From the colorful fiesta style dishes to the festive decor, the corn husk classic fit right in.

Location: Not as bad as it seems, this bustling area of LA is easily accessible but best avoided on street sweeping Thursdays. A Sunday brunch would solve that problem!

Magda Rates

Masa: Very good. They don’t use lard and the texture is quite light. As usual I could use a bit less Masa but I am not complaining too much here.

Filling: The best! I loved the variety. Even the sweet tamales were good and I hate sweet tamales.

Presentation: Pretty standard corn husks on a plate. These tamales are also large and 2 barely fit on a plate.

Location: Very stressful parking situation. If you drive, you will be about a block away.Metered parking is only an hour and the meter maids are out in full-force.


Mama’s Hot Tamales was established as an economic development project in order to provide education and job skills to nearby residents. It is an apprentice-operated business and part of the effort to revitalize the area surrounding Macarthur Park.

 

 

 

 

 

Mama’s Hot Tamales
2122 West Seventh Street (a half a block west of Alvarado St., and directly across
the southern border of MacArthur Park)
Los Angeles, CA 90057. Tel. 213.487.7474
Open: 11 am – 3:30 pm seven days a week

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Porto’s Bakery; I’ll have a tamale with that tiramisu

Today we dished it up Cuban style with a trek to Porto’s Bakery in Glendale, California.

M & R’s Rants, Raves, & Ratings

Rosemary

I guess it’s NOT always about the heat. At least when you are talking Tamales. Porto’s delivers a succulent, warm and “mashed potato” fuzzy Tamale that hits the spot without the spice. The Masa has a wonderful fluffy texture that melts nicely with the rich pork filling.

The hefty portion is savory, and definitely falls into the “comfort food” zone of pure pleasure. Go for the Tamale and stay for the dessert. And don’t be intimidated by the crowds. The staff is pleasant and efficient and as Magda noted, could teach the TSA a thing or two about processing long lines of people.

Magda
Portos’s Bakery is probably the last place you’d think of to get a tamale, but don’t be fooled by the racks of custard filled pastries, cakes and decadent desserts, they make a mean cuban tamale.

Cuban tamales are rolled mounds of masa piled with pulled pork and steamed in a cornhusk. It’s sort of like an inside out tamale. Ordinarily I don’t like tamales that are heavy on the masa but Porto’s flavors their masa to perfection. The texture of the masa is also light and airy and doesn’t leave you with that heavy filling. This is good because you will definitely want to try at least one of their desserts.

Two for two. Macaroons and coconut glazes.

We tried the coconut glaze balls (at 80 cents each how can you refuse?) I also had a side salad with raspberry dressing and a can of my favorite Peruvian Inka Kola.

Porto’s Bakery has 3 locations in Los Angeles county and they are huge establishements that are always crazy busy. Think of LAX with a more efficient crowd control system and you have a good idea of what Porto’s is like. The staff is always so well mannered and efficient despite the masses pressed against the display cases. None of the young staff there ever write down orders. How do they remember everything? I’d love to learn how they’re trained.

This was my third visit to Porto’s Bakery. Everything on the menu is a winner.

Rosemary Rates:

Masa: Rich, savory. I’m not even going to complain about the lack of spiciness.

Filling: The Cuban equivalent of Mac and Cheese. Perfect comfort food richness.

Presentation: Tied up in nicely in a cross length double wrapped corn husk.

Location: Easy parking at the Glendale location. Porto’s is loud, noisy and bustling with diners competing for a table. This is a 2 person job: one to order, the other to scout for a place to sit -and well worth the effort.

Pork Tamale revealed

Magda Rates:

Masa: Very tasty and flavored with the meat sauce. Moist, yet flakey.

Filling: Delicious pork filling. This is the only kind they sell and I could use a tiny bit more filling per tamale but it’s not a big gripe because they are so good.

Presentation: Each tamale is wrapped in doubled corn husks and tied neatly with string. This isn’t a restaurant so you’re stuck with plastic plates and forks.

Location: Southern California is a sprawl so be prepared for a longish drive if you do not live in the vicinity. There is plenty of free or nearly free city-run parking. Porto’s bakery is huge. All 3 locations are massive, well-run wonders so don’t be intimidated by the crowds. These people know how to serve you quickly.

Porto’s Bakery is located on three large sites in Burbank, Glendale, and Downey in Southern California. It is primarily a take-out bakery but they also serve sandwiches, and other savory dishes onsite. Seating is plentiful at all locations. Each site also includes a party planning department and they specialize in cakes for special occasions.

Porto’s Glendale is located at 3614 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, CA‎
See their website for other locations: portosbakery.com
(818) 846-9100‎

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Gloria’s Cafe, “The Stepford Wives” of tamales

One of my brilliant ideas for this blog was to record our impressions on an audio recorder as we tasted the tamales. At the time I never thought that I would actually leave the recorder behind at one of the sites. Yup, it happened, and of course we were at an establishment where, um, let’s just say, we weren’t thrilled with the food. Oh well…. I am not sure if the owners of Gloria’s actually listened to anything, (I am hoping that the batteries ran out) but if you ever find a recording on the internet of 2 women trashing “gringo-style” salsa and tamales, that would be us.

Without further ado, here is our assessment of the tamales at Gloria’s Cafe in West Los Angeles.

M & R’s Rants, Raves, & Ratings

Rosemary
I think we just found the “Stepford Wives” of the tamale world. Gloria’s Tamales looked great. While I prefer mine served with husk intact, these unwrapped babes were piping hot and drizzled with a colorful red sauce.

Gloria's Cafe Tamale Plate - Beef and Pork TamalesA quick dissection with a fork showed them to be rich with filling and tender but firm, holding their shape nicely. My mouth watered with expectation. But one bite and I knew that these tamales were meant to be bland.

Perhaps that explained the non-Hispanic crowd that filled the restaurant. Even the salsa was bland. No spice. No heat. All the ingredients were there. It was even hard to tell the flavors apart.

On a more interesting note, however, our server was quite gracious and explained in detail the difference between the Mexican style tamale and the El Salvador style: it’s all in the cooking and packaging. Mexican tamales are wrapped in corn husks and steamed; El Salvador tamales are boiled in banana leaves and tin foil.

Magda
I had never been to Gloria’s before, but the interior looked vaguely familiar. I think I might’ve picked up a take-out order there ages ago, but it’s hard to tell. The “Disneyesque-faux-Mexican” decor is pretty standard in places like this.

The restaurant was packed. This is usually a good sign, however not one single patron was of hispanic origin (or whatever they’re calling us nowadays.) Rosemary and I were called over to a table in the back of the restaurant so we waded through the sea of “gringos” to take our seats.

We were attended to right away with a plate of tortilla chips and salsa as they took our drink orders. Second bad sign… the salsa tasted like tomato soup. Rosemary asked the waiter if they had anything “better” than that. As the waiter gruffly answered “No, that is the best in the house,” Rosemary corrected herself and said, “hotter” not “better.” That calmed him down and he said “Hotter? oh yes we do.” (Note to self, never ask for “better” salsa.)

After we ordered, it took a long time to be served (If I had my recorder I could actually tell you how long it took.) I think they actually steam the tamales to order, which is a good thing. The tamales were hot and fresh. Unfortunately that is about all I can say for them. Both Mexican and Salvadoran tamales consisted of way too much masa and very little filling. The red sauce in both the Chicken and Beef tamales was very similar to the bad salsa that they serve there. There wasn’t even a hint of spice. The Chile/Cheese had a little more flavor brought out by thin slivers of Poblano. Unfortunately the overabundance of masa overwhelmed the filling.

The Salvadoran tamale was perhaps the most disappointing. The masa was very dense and I could’ve sworn it was made of potato or some type of tuber. We asked the waiter and he said that Salvadoran tamales are boiled rather than steamed which results in the dense texture. (Trying to picture this in my head. Boiled tamales???)

The other patrons (a.k.a. gringos) seemed very happy with their meals. Sadly I can’t say the same for mine and cannot recommend Gloria’s for tamales unless you have no clue what a good tamale is supposed to taste like and you like dipping your chips in tomato soup.

Rosemary Rates:

Masa: Good texture, held their shape nicely but bland.

Filling: Fresh and warm but lacked depth and richness

Presentation: Unwrapped but looked delicious with the drizzled red sauce and cheese.

Location: Bad parking, same dumpy strip mall, but conveniently close to Versailles – the Cuban restaurant where you can feel the heat! In case you missed it at Gloria’s.

Magda Rates:

Masa: Good texture, but way too much masa per tamale. The Salvadoran masa was dense and almost chewy.

Filling: Take a magnifying glass with you to find it. Very bland.

Presentation: Dinner plates looked great but I wish the tamales still had their husks on.

Location: The restaurant itself is nice, comfortable and clean, but the busy strip mall location is difficult to navigate and parking is bad. Try and find street parking but note that meters only last an hour on Venice.

Gloria’s cafe is sandwiched between a Metro PCS store and auto parts dealer in a busy, dusty, strip mall on Venice Boulevard on the west side of Los Angeles.

It’s a smallish restaurant serving a large variety of both Salvadoran and Mexican food, including both Mexican and Salvadoran tamales. It is a proper sit-down style restaurant with booths and tables but they also have take-out orders that can be picked up at the back of the restaurant. Tamales may be ordered as part of a “meal” with beans and rice or salad or à la carte.

Mexican Tamales are $4 each. Fillings include Chicken, Beef, Pork, or Chile & Cheese
Salvadoran tamales are $5 each. Fillings available are Pork, Chicken, and Elote.

Gloria’s Cafe
10227 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034

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The hunt begins at La Indiana Tamales

The Tamale Safari has bagged it’s first catch at La Indiana Tamales in East L.A.

Here’s how it went:

Scene: Magda and Rosemary grabbing a booth in the dark corner of Jim’s Burgers to eat their Tamales.

Magda: She’s eyeing us now.
Rosemary: I know.
M: Like “Why do they need forks?” So let’s just stay cool until she leaves.
M: OK. She turned the corner.
R: If we’re doing a taste test… What did you get?
M: I got one of each.
R: OK. You’re smarter than I am.
M: I got one chicken, one beef, one Elote…
R: Oh boy!
M: …one, um, pork, and I then got a chile relleno because I wanted to try it.
R: OK, I’ll help you taste yours and then I’ll give you mine back.
Both: Laughter.
M: OK, coast is clear.
R: Now, are we recording?
M: Oh, I’ve been recording since we got here.
M: So, um
R: Take the chicken out?
M: OK, and I’ll take a beef? Oh wow, they’re labeled.
R: Yeah, chicken.
M: Wait, hold on let’s take a picture of that.
M: Oh no. This is pork. Carne de res? *
R: Well?
M: This is good, but you know, I don’t think they use lard… I think they use vegetable shortening.
M: They say pork is their specialty.
M: Look, they had these wrappers specially printed.
R: Look at the size of this thing!
M: It’s what… only a dollar forty?
R: Yes. Oh they stay together, nicely.
M: Here take some of the pork.
R: Absolutely.
M I didn’t know if you were a “Pork person.”
M: Lots of filling.
R: The masa is perfect. Light, but it’s firm.
M: It’s funny, because the weight of the package was so heavy that… yeah, the masa is really good. Next year, let’s get our masa here. **
R: It has a nice cohesive flavor.
M: I like that there’s lots of filling.
R: Look at the size of the chicken chunks.
M: Sometimes you just get nothing but masa. I hate that.
R: I know. This is nicely filled.
M: So now we know why people line up for these on christmas.
M: I like the red chile on the side.
R: Try this one. (Referring to green salsa)
M: Is it worth it to go back and buy a tub of that?
R: Except for the fact that I made a large basin of it.
M: You made green chile?
R: Yeah, we’ll never get through it.
R: Boy, it’s hard to start off with a 5-star tamale.
M: Well, I am pretty sure that we’ll have plenty of chances to be disappointed.

* Carne de Res is actually beef, not pork. Magda’s Spanish leaves much to be desired. Truthfully, when meat is mixed with red chile sauce, it all tastes the same.

** Magda and Rosemary make killer tamales every christmas.

La Indiana’s is a typical family-operated Mexican deli found in many areas on the east side of town. They specialize in tamales and masa and carry a few more essential mexican staples like tortillas, spices, mexican candy, and paletas but the main draw is the tamales. The selection includes, Pork, Beef, Chile & Cheese, Elote, Chicken, and sweet tamales.

The place is very small and all orders are take-out only. They also have an online order form where you may place your order at least a day ahead of time. In addition to tamales La Indiana’s also make chile rellenos and gorditas.

Prices range from $1.40 each to $8.40 per half-dozen and $16.50 per dozen.

La Indiana Tamales is located right off the Santa Ana Freeway on Indiana street.
La Indiana Tamales
1142 S. Indiana Street,
Los Angeles Ca 90023

M & R’s reviews and ratings:

Rosemary:
As Magda said, we wanted to start out big. And there we were, at Indiana’s Tamales….and what I would certainly refer to, based on reputation, ground zero for Los Angeles Tamales.

On a non-descript corner of East LA, this tamale store is friendly, accessible and certainly digital friendly, once I showed them my PayPal receipt on my iPhone for my online purchases, they produced a written receipt for me to sign and handed over my still warm tamales & Chile Rellenos.

And so we looked for a place to indulge. That part was tricky. We ventured across the street to Jim’s Burgers and Magda secured a booth in the back while I ordered a couple of drinks to legitimize our visit.

Once settled, we pulled out 2 wonderfully warm, fragrant but greasy packages of heaven. We tasted the Pork (their specialty) and the chicken tamales. They come neatly wrapped with a wax paper wrapping noting the flavor. Once unwrapped, we were impressed with the size of the tamale -definitely falling under the “hungry man” serving.

The masa was firm but tender, holding its shape nicely. The filling was distinguishable…I liken tamales to salad instead of soup: you want all your ingredients to be separate and visual…it enhances the flavor when the combined effect melts in your mouth. And these did. Large pieces of meat. Vegetables including peas, corn and peppers. This is why I live in LA. When you can find a perfect tamale on your first outing, you know your city is good.

Magda:
La Indiana definitely lived up to its reputation for excellent tamales. The balance between masa and filling was just about right. I could actually use a tad less masa, but the texture and flavor was so good I’ll let it slide.

Aside from the tamales we tasted onsite, I also tried their other fillings at home. All but the elote*** were excellent and I think my favorites were the Chile & Cheese (Pictured on the right.)

***Elote tamales seem to be an acquired taste. They are basically mounds of masa that have been combined with sweet corn kernels (I think.) Not my cup of tea…

Rosemary rates:

Masa:
Firm but tender, evenly steamed and holds its shape.

Filling:
Delicious. Fresh, perfectly cooked and spiced just right. A little greasy, but nothing to be afraid of.

Presentation
Nicely wrapped with flavor noted on wax paper.

Location
Parking issues on busy days: 3 lot spaces and the rest is street parking. I’ve heard stories of eager tamale eaters parking 10 blocks away on Christmas Eve.

Magda rates:

Masa: Nice texture and flavor. Some of the tamales had slightly too much masa for my tastes.

Filling: Good flavor overall for both red and green chile tamales. Not too spicy but they did have a slight kick. Loved the Chile & Cheese tamales.

Presentation:
Love the printed paper wrappers. The outside was a bit greasy, though.

Location:
Parking is terrible. They only have a small 3-car capacity lot and street parking is rough.

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Tamale Safari is gearing up for the first trip

Since we want to start off strong, the first stop on the Tamale Safari will be a trip next week to La Indiana on the east side of  Los Angeles.

The legendary La Indiana has been a mecca for tamale aficionados for decades. It should be a good place to start. The only minor issue might be that La Indiana is take-out only.

We’ll file a complete report after our visit, but in the mean time check out their site.

UPDATE: It looks like La Indiana was part of NBC’s “Today in LA Tamale Contest”

 

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