Unless you're shopping at gas stations or forcing yourself through an instant ramen diet, $2.90 rarely buys lunch. At Maria's Tortillas on the edge of Inglewood, that handful of laundry money buys not only lunch, but a tasty if somewhat light one: a single hefty husk-swathed tamale bolstered with a side of chips, a medium-hot red cilantro-heavy salsa and crema.
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A wee storefront sharing strip mall space with a teriyaki hut, a dubious Mongolian barbecue joint, and a sports lounge, Maria's Tortilla's specializes in all things masa. Available wrapped around meats or sealed in plastic bags, the corn tortillas are pliable and fragrant when heated. Also available to-go, the corn chips are wondrous bubbly shards, crisp and just salty enough to sting your lips if you eat too many of them. The tamales follow suit.
Big, pillowy oblong slugs, the tamales range in cost from the absurdly affordable ($2.90 for a vegetarian) to the extremely inexpensive ($3.10 for beef or pork). They're fantastic and fresh-tasting. To test a theory that a top-tier tamale shop (or any kind of shop, really) should be judged by its least-likely-to-please items, one might pass up the meat, sweet corn, pineapple, and jalapeno-cheese options and go with the lowly vegetarian. If you do so, the saltiness and soothing texture of the masa is suddenly in relief, a veritable star next to the cooked-to-hell spears of zucchini, carrot, and red pepper protruding out from the interior. Heave on some crema and you're in business -- though you'll probably need a sweet corn or some chile verde chicken for dessert.
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