Essential T: Banana Leaf Tamales at Tamales Elena in Watts

A taste of Guerrero’s Costa Chica is closer than you think

My recent trip to Mexico was a whirlwind of traditional Mexican food from three different states, mezcal, tequila, and a chance to check in on the home town eats of one of my favorite food trucks—Tamales Elena. Elena Irra and her talented family of home cooks (one even worked under chef John Sedlar at Rivera and made it up to the hot line!) come from the Costa Chica area in Guerrero, a state that has been in the news in recent years for horrible acts of cartel and state-sponsored violence.

I was there working on a documentary called Masa Revolution, and we were there to film the regional style of tamales served at the Tamales Elena truck in Watts, a truck I first wrote about on my blog, Street Gourmet LA, back in 2008. I was able to convince our director, crew and their local liaisons to go into Chilpancingo, after it was clear we weren’t able to head to the Costa Chica, and not only did we find our tamales at the Chilpancingo market, but a rich variety of delicious dishes like picaditas (giant masa boats), delicious atoles (hot masa-based drinks), chilate (cacao agua fresca), barbacoa and so much more.

The local economy in Watts makes it difficult for Elena and her daughters to keep the more expensive banana leaf tamales made with fresh masa (the regular tamales at their stand are made from Maseca so they can deliver them to the community for $1), but if you call Teresa in advance you’ll have some of the best tamales you’ve ever tasted. The Guerrerans tie their tamales into flat rectangles filled with chicken or pork in either a red or green salsa, deeply flavored with chiles and Mexican spices—the tamales are then steamed in large pots over a mesquite fire for that extra special flavor. They’re moist and delicious and well worth the drive for a taste of traditional Guerreran tamales, just like you’d find at a market in Chilpancingo or in Guerrero’s Costa Chica.

Tamales Elena, Wilmington Ave and 110th St., Watts, 323-919-2509