At L.A.'s Mexican restaurants, the classic combination plate -- you know, the No. 5 or the "Macho Combo" or the "Pancho Villa Platter" that serves up a burrito, taco, tamale and chile relleno topped with yellow cheese along with refried beans, rice and flour tortillas -- tends to be ridiculed in this epoch of obsession with "authentic" Mexican dishes. So we must choose. Sometimes the tamale plate wins out, especially for those of us who don't have a Mexican grandmother at home turning out tamales from a family recipe perfected over generations. After all, Mexicans have been making tamales in the Americas since the pre-Columbian era. Perhaps your abuela even makes her own masa. Then there are the tamale fillings: maybe pork stewed in a red chile sauce, or a 100-ingredient mole.
How to compete with abuela's tamales? L.A. restaurants are willing to try. Some restaurants are homey spots serving the basic repertoire -- tamales packed with chiles, cheese, chicken, pork or beef. Others riff off these classic versions with special stews and sauces. You'll also find regional specialties, from areas such as Oaxaca and the Yucatán. Chefs acclaimed for their upscale, hip restaurants add their own interpretations, too, ranging from simple to exotic and complex. Turn the page for 10 of our favorite local spots for Mexican tamales.
10. King Taco
With about a dozen King Tacos in L.A. (and some on the outskirts), you're bound to run into one in your travels. So it's good to know that you are never far from a reliable tamale. King Taco does the basics -- chicken, pork, cheese with jalapenos, or sweet (sugar and pineapple pieces). It also lists calorie counts on the menu, in a font so small you need to squint to see it. Which is probably OK. 4504 E. Third St., L.A.; (323) 264-4067; and many others.
9. La Mascota:
Eat a tamale at La Mascota, and you may also be handed a roll, along with unsolicited advice: It goes great with the tamale! Wrong. The tamale -- red chile with pork is most popular, but you can also try pineapple, or green chile with chicken or cheese -- is fine by itself. Quite filling, although smaller than at other places. But yes, La Mascota is not only a tamale seller but also a bakery boasting more than 50 years of selling bolillos, Mexican rolls used for sandwiches, and a variety of sweet breads. 2715 Whittier Blvd., L.A.; (323) 263-5513.
Take the Metro Gold Line if you visit the compact First Street location in Boyle Heights, or enjoy the large parking lot at the spacious, attractive branch on nearby Cesar Chavez Avenue (where the kitchen is at least as large as the dining room, and filled with maybe a dozen cooks). The savory options are typical -- corn, red chile with pork, green chile with pork, green pepper with cheese, chicken with vegetable. For the sweet tooth, try strawberry, or pineapple with raisins. Unsure which to try? They're all popular, an employee will say. If you still look confused, you may be offered a free sample. 4629 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., L.A.; (323) 780-0989 and 3448 E. First St., L.A.; (323) 780-0829.
Turn the page for picks 5 through 7...
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Miliken, the chef duo known as "Too Hot Tamales," indeed serve tamales at their Border Grill restaurants. It was these green corn tamales accompanied by sour cream and salsa that supposedly made their reputation as tamaleras. For a kick, track down the Border Grill truck and eat your tamale out of a paper cone. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-1655; and 445 S. Figueroa, dwntwn.; (213) 486-5171. Visit the website for truck locations.
Juanito's is a small cafe on a mostly residential street with just a handful of tables. The first thing you'll notice about the tamale is its large size -- almost the length of an entree-appropriate plate. But the unique quality is that this tamale has been cooked in broth, not steamed. (Read "The ART of the TAMAL" poster framed on one wall to learn more about the technique.) The sauce-heavy filling with generous chunks of meat (pork is most popular) oozes out of the tamale after the first bite, unleashing hot steam into your face. 4214 E. Floral Drive, L.A.; (213) 268-2365.
Take the Metro Red Line to MacArthur Park and you'll notice a series of ceramic murals at the station, each portraying a neighborhood scene. One shows a tamale vendor with an image on his cart of a woman with a big smile and outstretched arms. She is Sandra Romero, known in the community for opening Mama's Hot Tamales as a way to employ local street-food vendors selling tamales in an array of Latin American styles. The program no longer exists, but about 30 tamales remain on the menu at Mama's, although only a few are available each day. On a recent afternoon, we passed over the typical pork in red chile for beef adobo, and also tried the Colombian-style guava with cheese, which came topped with strawberries. 2124 W. Seventh St., L.A., (213) 487-7474.
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Guelaguetza serves just one type of tamale, but it is enough. This Oaxacan-style tamale is stuffed with chicken breast and a thick, sticky black mole (the kind that made Guelaguetza famous), then wrapped into a squarish shape with banana leaves. Extra sauce comes on top. If you're looking for Oaxacan tamales on the Westside, try Monte Alban instead. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 427-0608.
Guisados, open only for a couple of years now, is already acclaimed for its namesake stews and braises, such as chicken tinga and steak picado. The popular vessel is a corn tortilla folded into a taco, but the tamales serve just as well. While the filling options change, they usually include shredded coconut with pineapple, and mole. One ingredient is constant: The masa ground daily from nixtamal at the tortillería next door. 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., L.A.; (323) 264-7201.
Choose from four options at Chichen Itza at Mercado la Paloma, a colorful, casual, warehouse-turned-marketplace south of downtown. The tamales are distinctly Yucatecan, all made with a light, moist dough of finely ground masa and cooked in shiny green banana leaves. For the tamal colado, the masa is strained, so that it achieves a pudding-like consistency, and then cooked with achiote-seasoned chicken. Sample a more crunchy texture with the horneado variety -- baked rather than steamed. The vaporcito presents yet a different spin -- this is a thin, flat tamale cooked with chicken, pork or vegetables. And the brazo de reina, filled with chaya leaves, pumpkin seeds and hard-cooked eggs, is sliced into small wheels, then topped with tomato sauce. 3655 S. Grand Ave., L.A.; (213) 741-1075.
And for our top pick...
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At Rivera, you can dial a number listed on the menu to hear chef John Sedlar describe some of the dishes. "Most people think of tamales as the embodiment of Mexican cuisine's earthiness," he says in the recording, before launching into an explanation of "Clams Tamalli." The dish is supposed to "join together earth and sea" with its corn masa and chopped clam meat. The tamal is steamed in large clam shells, then served with a French-style butter sauce flavored with green chiles. The other Rivera tamale -- a thin rectangle of masa with braised pork short rib inside and mushrooms on top, served on a banana leaf -- also could challenge the notion of earthy Mexican food. The masa is fluffy, moist and buttery, almost like a pancake. Rivera serves three different menus, one for each room. If you don't see the tamales on your menu, and have become a tamale fan by now, don't panic. You can, and should, order them anyway. Visit Sedlar's other restaurant, Playa, for the tamale with filet mignon, wild mushrooms and chipotle bérnaise, or a Thai-inspired version with shrimp, lemongrass and chiles. These are not your abuela's tamales. 1050 S. Flower St., #102, dwntwn.; (213) 749-1460.
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