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Guide: Where to get top-notch tamales in Los Angeles right now

A tamale topped with red salsa on a banana leaf.
Jalapeño and cheese tamal from Mi Ranchito Veracruz, steamed in a banana leaf.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

For the tamal-obsessed, here is a quick and up-to-date checklist of the best local tamales in town, from the Valley to Watts.

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Tamales rate among the essential staple foods of Southern California. At major bus stops and along the bustling food corridors in Latin communities across the region, a decent tamal is never very far. We’re lucky to live in the historic center of Tamale America.

Unofficially, tamale season kicks off in late fall and goes into hyperdrive just in time for the Virgin of Guadalupe feast day on Dec. 12. Making tamales is a ritual — led by women and passed across the generations — unlike few others in Mexican cooking. In the Catholic tradition, tamales can reliably be found at the center of the table on special nights and for big breakfasts all the way through Three Kings Day in January and, in some iterations, to the Candelaria festival on Feb. 2.

In the rich kaleidoscope of Los Angeles, eaters can find multiple forms of tamales from the cuisines of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Colombia, among others, each representing distinct culinary subcultures within each nation’s boundaries.

Of course, you don’t have to be from any of these cultures to appreciate the modest glory of a fragrant, steaming tamal. As an Angeleno, you’re entitled to good tamales all year round. But is it just us, or the fog-chilled weather, or do tamales really taste better around Christmas and New Year’s?

In Southern California, tamale festivals dot the calendar at this time, and this year they are returning in person, such as this week’s tamale festival in Placentia, going on 29 years, and the recent tamale festival in Oxnard, which drew more than 10,000 people in 2019.

Angry Egret Dinette

Last Christmas was the first holiday season I hadn’t visited my family in Maryland since the 1990s. Staying in Los Angeles, there was no question my partner and I would sustain ourselves with tamales. During an early December visit to Angry Egret Dinette, Wes Avila’s then brand-new takeout operation in Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza, I noticed he’d painted a sign on its window: “Tamales available for the holidays.” I placed an order online, and on Christmas Eve we were unwrapping corn husks revealing fluffy masa ovals filled with things like winter squash paired with Jack cheese, ropy shreds of beef in red chile and duck in salsa negra. Pre-order this year by the dozen for Dec. 24, 25, or 31; the choices are squash with cheese, pork, or duck in mole, and I’m betting they’ll be fantastic. — B.A.

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970 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 278-0987, aedinette.com

Chichén Itzá

The Cetina family’s destination stand for Yucatan specialties in Mercado La Paloma features three versions of regional tamales. Tamal horneado, a baked variation, has a crackling shell; when fractured with a fork it reveals achiote-stained chicken, hard-boiled eggs and tomato scented with epazote. Tamal colado, the masa steamed in a banana leaf with chicken, has an especially fine grain that verges on pudding. And tamales vaporcitos, perhaps the most famous Yucatecan style, reveal thin slippery rectangles when unwrapped from their banana leaves. They can be made with chicken, pork, or a vegetarian mixture of potato, tomato and carrot; for the holidays, Chichén Itzá sells vaporcitos in bulk, 25 tamales per tray. — B.A.

3655 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 741-1075, chichenitzarestaurant.com

La Mascota Bakery

The inside of this panadería and kitchen feels like every other bakery in any medium-size city in Mexico that’s been updated to seem “modern” while still retaining a grandmotherly charm, with warm hues, and a window off a central patio meant to showcase the women putting together La Mascota’s beloved tamales. Though open since 1952, this tamale locale, in a surprising sense, offers a taste that feels true to a south-of-the-border tamale standard of today. Unfussy, flavor-focused, the pork in red sauce shines in a mixture that results in tamales that are not too airy, not too dry and not too wet. The beef offers a pop of surprise, with deeper sweetness in its red. The sweet tamal, whether it is your taste or not, is a crumbly treat of pineapple and raisin. In all, La Mascota may offer the most perfectly balanced modern tamales on this blast of a search/survey for the current state of things. I took several home and had La Mascota tamales for breakfast and lunch for two days, their flavors holding up well after careful reheating. I enjoy topping my reheated tamales with a fork’s slap of crema mexicana. — D.H.

2715 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, 90023, (323) 263-5513, lamascotabakery.com

Two tamales, unwrapped, sitting on corn husks
Tamales and vibes are abundant inside Los Cinco Puntos, a carnicería and traditional corner grocery.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Los Cinco Puntos

There is a particular Mexican American flavor unique to East Los Angeles and its orbital neighborhoods and cities, part of the greater native Southern California tradition of Mexican cooking. The East L.A. taste has developed for decades and is evident in everything the locals make: from the aguas frescas, to the flour tortillas, to the tamales, of course. Many swear by Liliana’s, the cafeteria-style tamale temple on East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Another ideal place to inhabit the “East Los” lingo is Los Cinco Puntos. In a squat building at the eponymous intersection of “five points” of Chavez Avenue, Indiana Street and Lorena Boulevard, tamales and vibes are abundant inside a buzzing carnicería and traditional Mexican corner grocery. The place smells like old-fashioned East L.A. cooking: carnitas sweating in their juices, fresh aguacate salsa, heavy handmade tortillas and tamales all year. Barrels of chiles and dried husks beckon for at-home tamale-making. The primary tamale varieties are available in their local form: puerco, res, chicken, chile verde y queso, and dulce. It also offers tacos, burritos, tortas and flautas, and honestly we had to sneak in a taco de carnitas here while tamale-hunting. Standing with my colleague at the narrow outdoor metal eating counter, the only available spot to eat on-site, I predicted what we’d be getting from our tamales just before we unwrapped. “I bet these are going to be small, short, and a little less spicy,” I said, compared with the tamales we tried from what I’d call more recent-immigrant flavor palates. And true enough, they were: classic, mild and oh-so Mexican American. — D.H.

3300 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, 90063, 323-261-4084, los5puntos.com

Me Gusta Gourmet Tamales

A San Fernando Valley institution, Me Gusta’s street-side stand in Pacoima doubles as the retail outlet for the 10,000-square-foot tamale factory behind it. During the hectic holiday season, ordering tends to involve a quick conversation about which flavors are available hot and which are being sold cold to prepare later. Most customers leave with a mix of both. These are hefty bundles, soft-dense and satisfying. Count on chicken in green sauce, pork verde or roja and rajas con queso to be ready to eat in the car, packaged with three salsas of varying heat. Look for special fillings that include squiggly chicharrones bathed in red chile and strawberry in addition to the usual sweet pineapple variation. — B.A.

13754 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 896-8789, megustagourmettamales.com

Mi Ranchito Veracruz

On a wall-size menu, under the words “Today is a great day for a Veracruz tamal,” owners Pedro Barrientos, Roberto Gamboa and Marcos Ramirez keep a handwritten tally of how many tamales they’ve wrapped in banana leaves since opening in 2016. Last time I checked the number was approaching 80,000. Fillings vary but three are mainstays: chicken with tomatillo sauce, chicken with mole negro, and a jalapeño-and-cheese version that comes to life with a splash of spicy red salsa. The precise shape of each of them brings to mind a Pop-Tart; the texture is smooth, almost custardy. The excellence of the tamales at this North Hollywood gem (which also makes excellent, massive breakfast burritos) is no secret, but ordering them requires showing up in person or calling the restaurant; they don’t appear on the online menu. — B.A.

13363 Saticoy St., North Hollywood, (818) 287-6911, miranchitonoho.com

Poncho's tamale comes wrapped in aromatic avocado leaf.
Rather than corn husks or banana leaves, Poncho’s uses an aromatic layer of avocado leaf to contain the tamales’ filling.
(Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times)

Poncho’s Tlayudas

There’s a wonder-inducing quality to the process of opening the tamales made by South-Central Oaxacan pop-up gem Poncho’s Tlayudas. Alfonso “Poncho” Martínez is a Zapotec immigrant whose masterfully smoky Sierra Norte-style tlayudas made a statement for a while at the Sunday food fest Smorgasburg downtown. In his tamal state of mind, Martínez conjures up tamales oaxaqueños with organic masa from Kernel of Truth and organic black beans from Masienda. Poncho’s does not use corn husks or banana leaves to hold the tamales in place but rather a delicate and aromatic layer of avocado leaf. His tamal de mole con pollo eats like an unbraiding, with soft layers of masa cross folded with layers of the earthy-green leaf. I found myself lifting the strips of light masa and meat off the leaf itself, bit by bit, with my fingers. Poncho’s tamal de frijol also eats like a gift unwrapping. First, a whole leaf from the criollo avocado plant sits embedded on the top of the tamal’s form, a dramatic reveal. Slice down the middle, and note the tamal is indeed built like a layer cake, with lean steps of bean paste against masa, stacked up to the top. A true Oaxacalifornia stand-out, Poncho’s Tlayudas is a fan favorite among the L.A. Taco set, and remains a “viernes de tlayuda” pop-up at the Main Street offices of the Indigenous advocacy organization CIELO. He is accepting orders on Instagram @ponchostlayudas. — D.H.

Sabores Oaxaqueños

The treasures of Oaxacan cuisine, including its tamales steamed in banana leaves, are a well-documented fundament of modern L.A. dining culture. I point out brothers German and Valentin Granja’s staple in Koreatown both because it is relatively underrated (even though it occupies the original location of Guelaguetza) and because its kitchen makes two styles of tamales. Its Oaxacan tamal is textbook — a cloud of masa, slick and a little crumbly and slightly herbal in fragrance, giving way to inky innards of chicken in complex mole. There is also a selection of “tamales al gusto,” fine exemplars of the corn husk-wrapped models enfolded with rajas, chicken, melting beans or a revolving mix of fruits. They can easily be ordered by the dozen to feed a crowd. — B.A.

3337 1/2 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 427-3508, ordersaboresoaxaquenos.com

Tamales Elena y Antojitos

Our readers know the regard held by Times journalists for the family business started by Maria Elena Lorenzo. Tamales Elena has just been propelled to the 101 list, largely through the strength of its star dish, the Guerrero-style pozole verde, which Bill Addison has described as “orchestral.” Truly, from the first whiff of the chicken-and-pork-mix, chile-spiked broth, you’re under the symphonic spell. Maria Irra, one of the daughters of this all-women team who heads both the longtime truck operation in Watts and the Bell Gardens establishment, reminded me recently that her mother’s savory tamales are still the main event at Tamales Elena. She also advises against brushing off its tamales de dulce, offered in pineapple and strawberry. As noted in our Advent calendar, Tamales Elena y Antojitos will be taking orders online and in person until Dec. 24, when it will switch to first-come, first-served until the wrapped delights run out. Irra admits that she likes eating her tamales cold — “I don’t know why; my palate is already used to it,” she explains with satisfaction — and that sometimes her regular customers will request their tamales frozen, so they can complete the tamal at home. “I make them by hand here,” Irra tells me. “I’m doing them as we speak.” – D.H.

Truck: Wilmington Avenue and East 110th Street, Watts, 90059; and 8101 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens, 90201, (562) 674-3043. https://www.tamaleselena.com/


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