‘Tis the season for tamales as Placentia Tamale Festival preps return

There's no such thing as too many tamales in Placentia. The Placentia Tamale Festival returns Dec. 15.
(Courtesy of Matt Gush)

Every December, Old Town Placentia transforms into the tamale capital of Orange County.

For the past 27 years, the city’s small, historic district has welcomed the masa-loving masses to Santa Fe Avenue for the Placentia Tamale Festival, a community gathering celebrating the Mexican meal that especially whets appetites during the Christmas season.

The annual event celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019, which also served as the festival’s finest hour. A crowd tallying close to 20,000 arrived to Old Town throughout the day where food vendors, musical entertainers and even Santa Claus greeted them.

“That was probably the biggest tamale festival that we’ve had in its history,” said Rosalina Davis, chair of the festival. “We typically close one street down but closed a lot more streets that year, so it was huge.”

The tamale fest triumph marked the evolution of the event dating back to the 1980s when it began with las posadas, a Catholic religious tradition, along Santa Fe Avenue. The faithful dressed up as Mary and Joseph while leading processions that reenacted the Holy Family’s Biblical trek to Bethlehem in search of refuge for the birth of baby Jesus.

Old Town businesses, including the Tlaquepaque Restaurant that Davis co-owns, began putting out tables with pan dulce, champurrado and coffee for free on the sidewalk. Every year, more residents, and even out-of-towners, turned out for las posadas.

Soon the tradition came to include tamale vendors and Placentia’s first official tamale festival began back in 1994.

“It grew organically,” Davis said. “It wasn’t something that was handed down by the city. It just came out of the kindness and gratitude we had for our community.”

Rosalina Davis, right, is the chair of the 27th annual Placentia Tamale Festival.
(Courtesy of Matt Gush)

Inspired by Indio’s tamale festival, Placentia’s take is the first and longest-standing event of its kind in O.C. Other cities — like La Habra and Santa Ana — have followed its lead with their own tamale festival in recent years.

But nothing could prepare event organizers or tamaleros for the coronavirus pandemic to come.

The Placentia Tamale Festival didn’t take 2020 off; people preordered tamales by the dozens from Old Town restaurants — like El Farolito, 301 Café, Mi Casita, El Cantarito and Tlaquepaque — instead, and picked them up over the span of a few days in December.

“It was the first lapse that we had,” Davis said. “We did offer curbside pickup, but it wasn’t the same feeling. One of the reasons why people enjoy our tamale festival is because it’s a big reunion, a big get together. We didn’t have that same feeling of celebration. It was a small-scale event.”

Festive live mariachi will be featured at venues celebrating the holidays throughout Orange County this year.

With the tamale festival slated to return in-person on Dec. 15, the excitement this season is palpable. Tlaquepaque’s assembly line of workers started making tamales in the first week of October for the event.

Festivalgoers can expect the same local staples from Placentia setting up. Event organizers also invited a number of food trucks like Anaheim’s ultra-popular Don Churros, which dishes out the dessert with a homemade Jalisco, Mexico recipe. A craft beer garden with selections from local breweries returns to help wash down the tamales.

The Grammy-award winning Mariachi Divas will also be reprising their longtime role as musical headliners after missing last year.

“We are so excited to be back,” said Cindy Shea, the founder and musical director of the all-women mariachi group. “This show is something special for us because it’s tradition. When you throw holiday music into that and tamales, it doesn’t get any better.”

A worker stuffs a tin with tamales at Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Placentia.
(Courtesy of Matt Gush)

Even though the Placentia tamale festival is looking to resemble its pre-pandemic form, the hit restaurants have taken is still having an impact.

“I do have to say that it’s been tougher this year to get everybody to come back and sell,” Davis admitted. “Businesses, right now, are hurting tremendously with a lack of staffing. Some vendors couldn’t come back because they just didn’t have the people to do a production like this. Making tamales is very difficult and expensive. It’s a big investment for the business doing it.”

Tamale enthusiasts need not fret. There will still be plenty of local vendors on hand, and tamales won’t run out as in olden days.

The festival, which is an outdoor event, is following O.C. Health Care Agency regulations. Dining al fresco isn’t new to Old Town; Placentia shut down a block along Santa Fe Avenue during the pandemic to establish an outdoor dining area to help out local restaurants.

Booths will be spaced out as much as possible to prevent crowding.

And if festivalgoers choose to wear a mask, they can still have their appetites aroused by the aroma of tamales.

“It’s a cherished food that we have and it’s pretty seasonal,” Davis said. “It carries the tradition of familia, culture and having something delicious.”

This article was updated with the festival’s rescheduled 12/15 date due to expected rainfall.


What: 27th annual Placentia Tamale Festival
Where: Old Town Placentia, Santa Fe Avenue and Bradford Avenue.
When: Wednesday, Dec. 15, 4 to 10 p.m.

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