For most people, the holiday season is inextricably linked to food — the baking of family favorites, dozens of cookies, planning a meal that has almost as much traditional resonance as Thanksgiving. Here in Los Angeles, one of the most quintessential of holiday dishes is the tamale.
If you’re lucky enough to have family members who make them, cheers to you. But most of us buy them from our favorite little shops and restaurants, made by the tamaleras by the few or the dozen or the hundred. Some restaurants make tamales only this time of year; others make them nearly every day of the year but draw long lines in December.
There are many excellent restaurants, bakeries and groceries that make tamales, many of the best of them in East Los Angeles, where the aroma of corn and chiles can herald your arrival at a great shop even before you open its doors. Sure, you can take your chances at your favorite tamale shop, but it’s best to call ahead to make sure that you’ll have as many chicken mole or pork and red chile tamales as you want for the holidays.
Here’s a list of 13 great places to explore — or, perhaps, to return to for the hundredth time.
Chichen Itza — Gilberto Cetina and his son, Gilberto Cetina Jr., make fantastic Yucatecan food in a big kitchen behind a tiny counter in the Mercado la Paloma, a colorful marketplace just south of downtown. There are four different kinds of tamales here, baked as well as steamed, with achiote and chicken, or pumpkin seeds and eggs, sliced and topped with tomato sauce. (If you can stand it, pick up a bottle of Cetina Sr.'s housemade habanero sauce.) You can get small orders at the restaurant, but the catering arm of the business takes care of larger orders: chicken, pork and vegetable vaporcito tamales are $50 for 25; the larger brazo de reina tamales are 9 for $54. 3655 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 741-1075, chichenitzarestaurant.com.
Gracias Madre — If you badly want tamales for the holidays but happen to be vegan, Gracias Madre is here to help. The West Hollywood vegan Mexican restaurant is making holiday tamales and is taking orders until Dec. 21. (Orders need to be picked up by Dec. 23.) There are two versions, one savory and one sweet: a butternut squash and mole tamale, and a tamale with apple filling. Both are $36 per dozen. 8905 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 978-2170, graciasmadreweho.com
Guelaguetza — There are many reasons to go to this huge former banquet hall in Koreatown, starting with the Oaxacan cooking, long among the very best in town. During World Cup season, they throw a terrific party, you can buy mole and chapulines at the front, and it’s a pretty great place to go for mezcal. They have three kinds of tamales: Oaxacan tamales with mole and chicken; chicken, tomato, onion and jalapeno; and a dessert tamale, which you can order to go. If you want a large amount, Guelaguetza’s catering department has a tray of the Oaxacan tamales with rice and beans for $35.75 that serves 8 to 10. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com.
La Mascota — This Boyle Heights bakery has been making baked goods and tamales since 1952. A large building housing the bakery, retail shop and tamale production room encircles a courtyard that fills with a crowd during the holidays, when folks line up for the tamales, cookies and the chorreadas, the hard-to-find sweet whole-wheat buns. The fantastic tamales come in beef, cheese, chicken and pork, with red and green chile. Although it’s too late to order your tamales, La Mascota has plenty of them on a first-come, first-served basis until and including Christmas Eve. (It’s closed Christmas Day.) Priced at $18 a dozen. 2715 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights, (323) 263-5513, lamascotabakery.com
Los 5 Puntos — This enormous grocery, which looks more like a machinist’s shop than an excellent place to find tamales, has been run by the same family since 1967. The tamales will be plucked from a giant metal tub, and you can eat them outside on sidewalk patio chairs after you do some shopping. There are huge wooden barrels of chiles, a vast array of pepitas and spices — including wonderful bundles of cinnamon sticks — plus corn husks and tortillas and sodas and, yes, mops. The tamales come in pork, chicken and cheese with chile verde, as well as a sweet version. They make pretty great carnitas tacos too. Priced at $15.49 a dozen. 3300 East Cesar E Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 261-4084, los5puntos.com.
Loteria Grill — You can order Jimmy Shaw’s tamales this time of year, when he puts them on the menu at five of his restaurants (not at LAX or downtown). But if you need your tamales to make it home, you can pick them up at any of the same five restaurants if you order them 48 hours in advance from their catering department or online. The tamales Loteria is making: zucchini and roasted corn succotash; chicken in mole poblano; carnitas in chile morita sauce; poblano chiles, panela cheese and tomatillo sauce; and pineapple. Tamales are sold by the half-dozen ($24 to $26) and dozen ($48 to $52). 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles; 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, and three other locations, (323) 465-2500, loteriagrill.com.
Mama’s Hot Tamales — When Sandi Romero retired in 2011 from running her MacArthur Park tamale shop, Mama’s Hot Tamales, she didn’t stop making tamales — soon she was back catering. Now she makes her tamales at the Chef’s Center of California in Pasadena, where you can pick up your orders on Dec. 20, if you place them by Dec. 13, although Romero says she’ll deliver them for free if you can’t make it in. (She also says she’ll have more tamales for sale if you stop by the center.) Romero makes a wide variety of tamales, including chicken with green chile or mole, beef or pork with various sauces, vegetarian and sweet, and even fusion tamales (Korean BBQ, chicken adobo, pastrami, kimchi), as well as special little 2-ounce tamales. Tamales are $30 a dozen, more for the fusion tamales and the 2-ounce tamales, which are available as a special order. 45 N. San Gabriel Blvd., Pasadena, (213) 948-3585, mamashottamales.com.
Maria’s Bakery — Maria’s has been making tamales for 26 years in a nondescript bakery in a little strip mall in El Monte. The place opens at 5 a.m. and often sells out before noon, and with good reason: The tamales are excellent. They have red and green pork, cheese and sweet tamales, all made in the back by tamaleras who stuff and steam them in big pots. There are fresh pastries in a case and a big tray and tongs for them on the counter next to the cash register. (It’s a take-out place.) They don’t take orders; it’s first come, first served. Tamales are $1.65 each. 4743 Peck Rd., El Monte, (626) 444-8109, (no website).
Me Gusta Gourmet Tamales — Open since 1999, this tamale retail shop and factory is run by the extended Ortega family. It’s also in Pacoima, which is good news for Angelenos who can’t easily trek to East L.A. Me Gusta makes a large variety of tamales, including beef and chicken, pork with both green and red chile sauce, cheese with roasted chile, vegetable, and sweet tamales with sweet corn or pineapple. Order early, as the place really is a factory and they get swamped. Hot tamales to go are $21 plus tax, cold ones are $20 without tax. They’ll take Christmas orders until Dec. 22. 13754 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 896-8789, megustagourmettamales.com.
Mom’s Tamales — Open in Lincoln Heights since 2005, Mom’s has the standard tamales — pork or beef in red chile sauce, cheese and jalapenos, chicken in green chile sauce — plus spinach and cheese, chicken mole, and a sweet pineapple tamale. You can order them to go at the kitchen, or sit down in the upstairs dining room, a cheery place with views of the street and of the colorful mural that takes up one of the exposed brick walls, as well as a big poster of Guy Fieri (he once featured Mom’s on his show) and a wooden barrel with a stereo playing classic Christmas music. The tamales are excellent, so call a couple days ahead if you want to make sure they don’t run out of your favorites. Cooked tamales are $20 per dozen; uncooked are $18 per dozen. 3328 Pasadena Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 226-9383, momstamales.com.
Sandra’s and Lolita’s Tamales — There’s a big sign on the side of a refrigerated case here that gives prices for the tamales: by the few or the hundreds. Which tells you a lot about this place, which is a counter fronting a big kitchen. There’s menudo on weekends and enchiladas, but you’re here for the tamales, which are loaded with sauce and artfully wrapped, one end open with a bit of masa and sauce spilling out, the other folded up and back like a tail. There are green chile with pork or cheese, red chile with pork or chicken or beer, plus sweet tamales. Plan your day and expect holiday lines, as they don’t take orders. Tamales are $16 or $17 per dozen. 5390 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 722-2961, no website.
Tamales Alberto — Alberto Mejia started Tamales Alberto in 1965, first as a street vendor, then as a brick-and-mortar shop in Westlake. There are antojitos and pozole and menudo on the weekend, and the tamales, which are wrapped with corn or banana leaves and come in many iterations: chicken with green chile sauce, pork with red chile sauce, chicken with mole, beans and cheese, tofu with chipotle sauce, spinach and cheese, cheese with jalapenos, and sweet tamales with pineapple or strawberry. Tamales are $16 or $18 per dozen. Call ahead for Christmas orders. 1644 W Temple St., Los Angeles, (213) 484-4485, no website.
Tamales Liliana’s — This local favorite has two locations, one in East L.A. and one in Boyle Heights, offering the same menu of wonderful tamales. Expect all the traditional favorites: pork with red chile sauce, beef with green chile sauce, chicken with vegetables, cheese and green chiles, and sweet tamales. The East L.A. location also has a huge parking lot and a dining room that seems almost as large, which makes Liliana’s a great place to hang out and have a conversation over your plate of tamales and maybe watch soccer on one of the televisions on the wall, as well as getting them to go. Tamales are $18 per dozen. 4629 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 780-0989; 3448 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 780-0839; no website.
I take pictures of tamales before I eat them, at Instagram @ascattergood.