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...