Photo by Anne Fishbein
If you have lived in Los Angeles more than a couple of years, you may remember the sort of Los Angeles stories that used to be a staple of national (and British) magazines, the colorful journals of writers parachuting into the Westside, setting up housekeeping at the Beverly Wilshire for a few days, and reporting on that tiny snippet of the city that lay within a 15-minute convertible ride from their hotel rooms.
You remember that take on Los Angeles — in those pieces, invariably called Lotusland — in which the entire populace was fixated on the weekend grosses or Eames furniture or the latest purveyor of artistic honey-blond highlights, except when they were chattering about the new Madonna album or the shameful way that their gardeners continued to use leaf blowers. Sometimes there would be a variant of this story, the Third World Dystopia model, in which the reporter would suddenly discover that there were a whole lot of Thai people, or Mexican-Americans, or Koreans, who seemed to be conducting their lives as if Morton’s had never existed.
I could just be imagining this, but it seems as if that kind of story has become less frequent in the last few years, both because San Francisco and London have been absorbing a lot of the Center of the Universe kind of journalism, and because with the current ascendance of local painting, architecture and schools of urban planning, Los Angeles is perhaps being taken more seriously.
Which is why it was at least a little surprising to see an antediluvian version of the Lotusland story this month in The New York Times Magazine, in a food column that in a mere 1,600 words managed to perpetuate more clichés about Los Angeles than you’ll find in a year’s worth of Dominick Dunne. Jonathan Reynolds, a playwright and part-time food columnist, whose view of Los Angeles may have been colored by his screenwriting credits on both Leonard Part 6 and My Stepmother Is an Alien, came to town looking for decent tamales. His exhaustive research into local tamale stands led him to Corn Maiden, which he found conveniently “near the airport,” and which had been highly rated in Zagat. He found the tamales leaden and dry. And he logically “concluded that you just can’t buy a good tamale in Los Angeles.”
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I would have suggested that Reynolds drive to the Eastside, where he could find any number of decent tamales at Grandma’s in Montebello, at Los 5 Puntos down on Cesar Chavez, at the excellent La Indiana near the freeway. If he were even slightly ecumenical in his idea of a tamale, he could try the excellent mole-sluiced Oaxacan tamales at one of the Guelaguetza restaurants, the giant, slippery Nicaraguan nacatamals at Portobanco in Mid-City, or the sweet-corn Salvadoran tamales at any of the Texis restaurants in the Wilshire District. John Sedlar, whose long-closed South Bay restaurant St. Estephe set the standard for modern Southwestern cooking, has as many tamales in his repertoire as Baskin-Robbins has flavors of ice cream, and he pops up around town with all-tamale dinners a few times a year. Reynolds might even have found a kind of satori in the vast, goopy mess of a chili tamale from Tommy’s.
But his suggestion was altogether different. Knock on the door of a rich person on the Westside, ask if he or she employs any illegal aliens, and wait for brilliant tamales to flow forth from the nannies and the housekeepers, the various Margaritas and Alejandrinas, in a corn-wrapped, lard-enriched flood. He finished, of course, with a tamale recipe — a tamale recipe calling for instant masa.
I would be the last person to insist that a store-bought tamale is in any way superior to a great homemade tamale, and I have more than once experienced withering comments from friends of my mother-in-law who correctly surmise that the tamales they have just inhaled from a holiday buffet at my house were in fact wrapped and steamed by hands that were not my own. Yet I am not sure that I have ever tasted a tamale as wonderful as the tamales that sell for $20 a dozen at the venerable Juanito’s in East L.A., savory tamales steamed in rich stock instead of water, slender, pliant shells of masa lovingly patted into cornhusks, unrolling to reveal tender, superthin tubes of masa that seem almost engineered around fillings of pork in dusky red-chile sauce, stewed chicken, or melted cheese spiked with sweet green chiles. A Juanito’s tamale, made the same way since Kennedy was in the White House, is a tamale worthy of a great metropolis.
Juanito’s Tamales, 4214 E. Floral Drive, East L.A.; (213) 268-2365. Open Mon.–Sat. 7 a.m.–6 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.–3 p.m.