The holidays bring many special packages, but none are as flavorful as tamales. Like everything in L.A., these Latin American masa wraps come in numerous regional styles and shapes, from dainty hand-tied Sinaloan beauties to banana leaf-wrapped Colombian monsters. No matter the form, they all pack the season’s celebratory spirit into steaming bundles of comfort.
3957 S. Western Ave., Exposition Park, 323-298-1310
Chef-owner Carla Dawson’s spare storefront is just the place for the sort of hearty chicken tamales you’d find in Belize City. MASA: Corn that’s been nixtamalized (soaked in an alkaline solution to make masa) is tucked into a banana leaf, which is then folded in aluminum foil. FILLING: Shredded chicken is stewed in a recado, a spicy achiote paste made with annatto seeds and redolent of bitter orange. BONUS: Enjoy your tamal with a glass of creamy, citrusy soursop juice, made from the spiky Caribbean fruit.
Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca
2648 W. Pico Blvd., Pico-Union, 213-385-7458
Oaxacan-style tamales are ubiquitous in L.A. (aka Oaxacalifornia), but the mole negro-soaked versions at this nearly 20-year-old nook put all others to shame. MASA: A hefty portion of springy masa takes on the tropical aroma of its banana leaf sheath. FILLING: Thin strands of shredded chicken join with a savory chile-chocolate mole thickened with bread and tortillas and layered with more than 20 herbs and spices. BONUS: The shop opens early. Good thing—tamales are an excellent breakfast.
LA Flor de Yucatan
1800 S. Hoover St., Pico-Union, 213-748-6090
The Burgos family’s bakery specializes in tamales from the Yucatán Peninsula, such as the egg-filled brazo de reina. MASA: The banana leaf-wrapped cylinder is served sliced, which requires firmer masa. It’s also blended with chaya, a Mayan herb that tastes like spinach. FILLING: Ground, toasted pumpkin seeds and hard-boiled eggs arestirred into a tomato sauce buoyed by epazote and fiery chile x’catic. BONUS: This is a Lenten dish, but preorder and the Burgoses will make it anytime.
5373 Alhambra Ave., El Sereno, 323-224-0364
Our newest Sinaloan fonda prepares the Mexican state’s breakfast staples—chilorio (spicy pork), machaca (beef jerky)—but on weekends it’s a hub for corn husk tamales. MASA: Fluffy masa, stained red from the spicy stew at its center, is wrapped in a corn husk and tied at both ends. FILLING: Sweet pork is simmered in a mild ancho chile-spiked mixture of tomatoes, olives, green beans, and jalapeños. BONUS: The shop offers bulk deals, which makes it easy to share. Buy these tamales by the dozen.
847 S. Union Ave., Westlake, 213-388-0150
Hailing from the country’s Tolima Department, the grandiose tamales tolimenses are a meal unto themselves. MASA: Softened by chicken stock, the masa is barely contained in a banana leaf bundle large enough to hold Christmas dinner. FILLING: A soup of chicken, pork, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetable broth is combined with cooked rice. Annatto seed paste provides the reddish hue. BONUS: To rise and shine like the Colombians, add a hot chocolate and a squishy roll.