Have you ever plowed through a plate of hot uchepos? Not unless you've spent time in Michoacán, I'm guessing, or at least visited Birrieria Apatzingan up in Pacoima. Uchepos are like tamales caressed by an angel, clouds of sweet, fresh corn steamed in corn husks, tasting like nothing but themselves. Diana Kennedy's recipe calls for nothing but fresh corn and its green husks. Other versions may be tricked out with baking powder, condensed milk and maybe a little rice flour, but the effect is basically the same — what all sweet tamales aspire to be. Birrieria Apatzingan's uchepos are lovely, striped with gobbets of thick Mexican cream.
If you have followed the essays about tamales I tend to write at this time of year, you know the basic drill. I wander through Boyle Heights, following a well-worn trail between Liliana's and La Mascota. I seriously contemplate the virtues of each, and discuss the merits of including unconventional (for Los Angeles) tamale-like objects from Peru, El Salvador or Guatemala; banana-leaf-wrapped tamales from Oaxaca and the Yucatán; even such outliers such as Taiwanese zongzi or Hong Kong lo mai gai, Vietnamese bánh lá or the Nicaraguan nacatamal. I decide that anything that isn't a traditional tamale stuffed with red chile and pork is beside the point, at least on Christmas Eve.
So I go on to crush out on the scene at Los 5 Puntos, whose line seems to encapsulate the Eastside like the crowd outside Tito's Tacos does the Westside. I stop by Liliana's, where the combination of really great tamales and really bad coffee is one I crave at least a few times a year. (Their tamales stuffed with cheese and chiles are great too.) I wait in line at La Mascota, where they always offer you a roll with your tamale in case you happen to be a fan of starch-on-starch. I pick up a few soft, stingingly spicy tamales from La Indiana. And I wonder, as always, why the supple masa at Uruapan translates into stodgy tamales.
Most years, I end up back at Juanito's, whose thin-shelled tamales steamed in broth I have been picking up since the last time the Dodgers won the World Series. I dream about those tamales sometimes: their heft, their musky smell, the way the chile poured out when you breached the crust. But Juanito's seems to have closed this year. There is a gaping, tamal-shaped hole in the heart of the city's tamale scene.
Might tamale splendor be found at La Moderna in Whittier? It could be. The compact tamales were well-made, with a thin, extra layer of masa smeared on each leaf of the husk, and a rich, slightly gelatinous red chile filling a little different from the others in Los Angeles. The pickup schedule for Christmas tamales is punishing, blocked out for weeks — these tamales are not a secret. And they sell whole roasted lambs' heads on weekends, which if nothing else indicates a seriousness of purpose. It's one for the list.
Do uchepos count as tamales? They could — an informal online poll had 23 for and only 6 against — but also kind of not, at least for our purposes. I drove to Birrieria Apatzangan in Pacoima anyway, and fortified myself with a plate before moving on to Rosy's Tamales, whose dense, slightly rubbery tamales were in the style of Nayarit — the one stuffed with chicken and red chiles was unusually spicy.
I continued on to Lenchita's, a bustling family restaurant famous for the quality of its hand-patted tortillas, where the tamales were fine, but perhaps overshadowed by the thin, unusually smoky chile verde and the delicious albondigas soup.
I ended up, as one does in Pacoima, at Me Gusta, a small, worn shack that shares a parking lot with its looming tamale factory, like a neon-lighted tollbooth at the entrance to a bridge. You may have tasted these at one of the many farmers markets where Me Gusta sets up booths, touting its "gourmet" lard-free tamales. You may have become fond of the rajas tamales, stuffed with roasted green chiles and an extravagant quantity of melted cheese; with the sweet tamales made with strawberries or pineapple; or with the cheerful vegetable-stuffed tamales.
Are Me Gusta tamales from the stand better, fluffier, meatier than the Me Gusta tamales you nabbed last week from the Larchmont or Baldwin Hills markets? Probably not — they come from the same factory. But they at least seem fresher, bought one by one or by the dozen, washed down with a cup of warm champurrado at one of the picnic tables out back or taken home and resteamed: basic, solid and delicious.
Birrieria Apatzingan, 10040 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 890-6265.
Carniceria Uruapan, 2100 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 265-2474.
La Indiana, 1142 S Indiana St., Los Angeles, (323) 262-4682.
La Mascota, 2715 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 263-5513.
La Moderna Bakery, 8035 ½ Norwalk Blvd., Whittier, (562) 695-9414.
Los Cinco Puntos, 3300 East Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 261-4084, los5puntos.com.
Lenchita's, 13612 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 899-2623.
Me Gusta Gourmet Tamales: 13754 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 896-8789, megustagourmettamales.com.
Rosy's Tamales, 10981 Glenoaks Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 834-6948.
Tamales Liliana's, 4629 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 780-0989; 3448 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 780-0839, www.tamaleslilianas.co.