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Critic's Choice: A holiday hankering for tamales

For a lot of Angelenos, the holidays bring a craving for tamales — fat, corn-husk-wrapped packets of tender steamed masa filled with gooey melted cheese or shredded fall-apart pork or chocolatey chicken mole. This time of year, places such as Liliana's in Boyle Heights or Tamara's in Marina del Rey are swamped with orders. Luckily, L.A.'s a world of tamales: the Michoacan

uchepo

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and Belizean

ducunu,

or even a Puerto Rican

pasteles

(which isn't made with masa but with plantains steamed in banana leaf).... Here are some of the places at which to get a quick fix, from recent "The Find" columns.

— Betty Hallock, Miles Clements, Thi Nguyen and Linda Burum

The menu at this Boyle Heights taco shop is a sharply focused selection, each day's

guisados

parceled out into about a dozen different tacos and tamales. If your timing is right, you might also luck into tamales stuffed with rich mole or, just as happily, bursting with shredded coconut and pineapple. But even those filled simply with chicken are good enough to encourage bulk orders.

2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 264-7201, http://www.guisados.co.

Matriarch Zelda Pariente heads the kitchen with daughter Edna Guevara as sous-chef. "Back home, Mom was famous for her Belizean-style tamales," says daughter Diamine Pariente, who looks after the front of the house on weekends with her brother Oscar. Although the weekday menu is a little limited in the entree department, there are always

ducunu

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. The unfilled tamales, made with fresh corn grated off the cob, then ground and formed into sweet-savory logs, taste wonderful on their own and spectacular with stewed pork, beef or chicken.

1271 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 931-4840.

The menu at Amalia's (just north of the traffic-tangling intersection where Beverly, Temple, Virgil, Commonwealth and Silver Lake merge) is long and fairly ambitious: seafood soup with fresh blue crab, mussels, shrimp and octopus; pork and white bean stew; juicy sausage flavored with mint and onions; and several varieties of tamales. The bone-in chicken

tamal

isn't listed but is always available.

751 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 644-1515, http://www.amaliasrestaurant.com.

At this Hollywood Salvadoran restaurant, there are of course

pupusas

— thick rounds of fresh masa, stuffed with any combination of cheese, beans, pork and vegetables and griddled until crispy. And a particular mastery is evident in the

pupusa de arroz

, made with rice flour. The tamales feature cloud-like masa, more like porky marshmallow fluff than anything made from corn.

5716 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 957-2967.

The highlight of the appetizer platter here is what looks like the Puerto Rican version of a tamale. But there's no masa involved — the exterior is made of mashed green bananas, squash and a nutty tuber called

yautia

. Steamed in a banana leaf, it's called

pasteles

; fried, it's called an

alcapurria

. Both are dense, earthy, warming. A crab

alcapurria

is pure fun — with the triple joys of fried crispness, chewy plantain mash and sweet shreds of crab. But maybe the most profound bite here is of pork

pasteles

, the dense perfume of long-stewed pork soaking through every soft mouthful of plantain mash.

5757 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 754-1051, http://www.mofongosrestaurant.com.

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