Tamales have long been associated with Christmas, especially in parts of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest where las posadas, neighborhood parades commemorating Mary's search for shelter, are celebrated. Since tamales are so portable, they're the perfect food to bring over to people's houses — in other words, ideal for las posadas. They're labor-intensive, but in the Christmas season tamale-making is turned into a party called a tamalada. Since not everyone has the time or inclination toward two full days of prepping masa, cooking stews and rolling up corn husks, here are the best places in L.A. to get tamales for Christmas Eve. (Or Christmas Day, or a night of Hanukkah, or any day, really.) If buying for a crowd, order at least three days in advance.
Union Plaza Market
You can watch the Guatemalan tamales being made here: They come out plump and oozing with red juices, the banana leaves glistening with fat. The first bite delivers, and the masa melts like butter. Bigger than your average Mexican variety (which also are available here), the to-go massive bundles are wrapped in tin foil and delivered to you in a plain white baggie. The simplicity of packaging belies the complexity of flavor within.
1629 W. Sixth St., Westlake; (213) 484-8668.
Mama's International Tamales
There has been an ownership change (which frankly sounds pretty shady on the part of the new owner), but this most classic of all L.A. tamale joints (it used to be called Mama's Hot Tamales) offers varieties from all the countries of Central America. It's perfect if you're trying to make a big group of people with diverse palates happy. Plus, it has vegan options — a rare thing indeed, since traditionally most tamales are made with lard. Try the mole, cactus and potato, or the cheese and jalapeño. (And if you're looking for the original Mama of Mama's Hot Tamales, Sandi Romero, you can try emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. With enough advance notice, she might fill an order for you.)
2124 W. Seventh St., Westlake. (213) 487-7474.
Gigi's: the Cuban bakery that specializes in Salvadoran tamales, and nails it. The banana leaf–wrapped chicken, olive and potato variety is what people line up for. They're always moist, never gummy. Gigi's also has Guatemalan tamales, which omit potato but are also wrapped in banana leaf; its Mexican tamales feature a corn husk and run pretty large.
2200 W. Temple St., Historic Filipinotown. (213) 483-6152, gigisbakeryla.com.
What originally started as a street cart has grown into a brick-and-mortar bakery that's an Echo Park staple on the border of Historic Filipinotown. Tamales Alberto is a bakery and a restaurant, and it churns out husk-wrapped Mexican tamales, of which the chile verde variety is probably the most drool-worthy. There's a vegan chipotle version, too.
1644 W. Temple St., Echo Park. (213) 484-4485, facebook.com/tamalesalberto.
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The tamales at this Yucatán-inspired stall in Mercado La Paloma are legendary: Unlike their corn husk-wrapped counterparts from other parts of Mexico, these are wrapped in banana leaves and are barely thicker than padded UPS pouches. It takes great skill to make them so thin; chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. has perfected it over the years. But seriously, we don't even care what they look like — they could be shaped like cat droppings and we'd still eat them.
3655 S. Grand Ave., Ste. C6., Historic South Central. (213) 741-1075, chichenitzarestaurant.com.
La Flor de Yucatan
This Yucatan bakery might not be quite as famous as Chichen Itzá, but it's worthy of our praise. Among the highlights is the colado tamal, which features masa that's been simmered and strained to the smoothest of purées that's then encased in banana leaves. The resulting texture is velvety and utterly delicate. The brazo de reina is also good, made with a firmer masa and served up sliced into cross-section rounds, each slice stuffed with eggs and ground pumpkin seeds.
1800 S. Hoover St., Pico-Union. (213) 748-6090, laflordeyucatan.net/.
The Mexican green chile chicken tamales are what you should come here for, and it’s what this Mexican bakery does best. The masa is consistently moist and rich, mixed with just enough lard. The salsa verde doesn’t pull any surprise flavor punches, but it’s a good, no-frills staple. The bakery also has pork, bean and cheese, and spinach varieties, but they just don’t have as much of a hook. The only option that compares, surprisingly, are the secret vegan and tofu tamales, which aren’t on the menu but can be ordered in advance. They're well-spiced and moist.
1630 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. (213) 250-2472, facebook.com/celaya-bakery-panaderia.
If this is just another excuse to use up the 26-ingredient mole negro for which this restaurant is known, we're OK with that. The thick sauce is draped across a banana leaf–wrapped chicken tamale, and sensuous is the only word that comes to mind. The mole is sweet, certainly, but not overly so, and it has an unmistakable depth of flavor. If you bring these to the holiday party, you're sure to be adored.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com.