Essential T: Tamales for the Holidays

Where to order our favorite little Latin American presents to unwrap

The very best Mexican foods start with the letter T—tacos, tortas, tlayudas. Here we showcase the tastiest “T” bites from the streets of L.A.

With the vast range of cultures Los Angeles has to offer, we Angelenos should serve up some of the most exciting holiday fare in the U.S. But let’s face it: roast turkey and mashed potatoes are only interesting enough to serve up twice a year. For many of our neighbors to the south, tamales represent the ultimate in holiday comfort. While we usually think Mexico when it comes to tamales, every Latin American country has its own unique spin on the classic dish. And luckily, we’ve got access to many of these little Latin American presents to unwrap right here in L.A.

So why not let the expert tamaleras do the work for you? Picking up a dozen tamales is an inexpensive and easy way to liven up your holiday table, and they’re also great if you’re heading to a potluck. It (probably) goes without saying, but be sure to call in advance to place your orders.

Tamales Elena
Juan and Elena Irra serve inexpensive corn husk tamales to working class families from a truck in Watts, but it’s their genuine Guerrero-style tamales, wrapped in banana leaves, that steal the show. They’re flat rectangular treats with full-flavored pork or chicken in a rich, moist masa and a pleasurable balance of heat. At $20 for a dozen large tamales, it’s a steal.

Tamales Elena, Wilmington Ave. near 110th St., Watts, (323) 919-2509

LA 27
You don’t need a dozen Nicaraguan nacatamales($5 each) for your festivities; one of these small pillow-sized tamales filled with pork, achiote, vegetables, and rice rolled into corn masa is enough to feed 2-3 people.

LA 27, 1830 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 387-2467 

El Sinaloense
This Huntington Park supper house that proudly represents the typical cuisine of Sinaloa was previously featured on Essential T, but since this your best corn husk tamale option in town, we’re bringing them back once more. We already told you about their pork tamales, but their pure corn masa tamales are excellent, too. Grab a dozen for $12 and serve them with a salsa verde and some tangy Mexican crema.

El Sinaloense, 7601 State St., Huntington Park, (323) 581-1532

Tracey’s Belizean Restaurant
Belizeans make some of the best chicken tamales you’ll ever try. At this quiet Little Belize restaurant, the tamales are steamed in banana leaves wrapped in aluminum foil—as are all Belizean tamales—and get their unique flavor from cull, a Belizean annatto seed paste. These generous, hefty Caribbean parcels ($3 each) can easily be split between two people.

Tracey’s Belizean Restaurant, 3810 S Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 735-2166

Sabor Colombiano
For an entirely different tamal, we head south to Colombia’s Valle de Cauca for a tamal vallecaucano made with a well-seasoned rice masa. These behemoths ($6.99 each) come loaded with pork, chicken (watch out for bones on this one), chunks of potato, peas, and carrots. The flavors of cumin, saffron, and mild Colombian peppers are crowded into every bite. Put three of these on your table and you’re all set to rumba.

Sabor Colombiano, 847 S Union Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 327-5752,

Gish Bac
A really fine Oaxacan tamal oozing a black, silky mole negro from within its permeable walls of corn masa? Yes, please.  The tamal de mole ($2.75) sings a southern Mexican ballad of herbs, spices, bitter chocolate, and corn masa on a banana leaf stage.  A half dozen of these are enough to make sure everyone at your dinner gets to unwrap a gift.

Gish Bac, 4163 W Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 737-5050,

Rinconcito Guatemalteco
Perhaps the ultimate comforting tamal might be the Guatemalan pache, made with a smoky, spicy mash of potatoes rather than the traditional Mexican cornmeal. (What better to go with turkey and stuffing than a mashed potato tamale?) Steamed in banana leaves and wrapped in foil, these paches ($3 each) are filled with tender pieces of chicken (bones and all) and infused with recado—a delicious mixture of tomatoes, peppers, achiote, and spices.

RInconcito Guatemalteco, 501 N Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 463-6602