Dear Mr. Gold:
My mom is coming to my house for Christmas for the first time ever and I volunteered to cook, decorate, the whole nine yards. She is Mexican and is traditional on holidays, which means every year she makes tamales. I never learned or watched, unfortunately; I just showed up at the table and tamales magically appeared. She is flying in on Christmas Eve. In your opinion, what are the best authentic traditional Mexican tamales here? I need both savory and sweet.
–Nikki, Los Angeles
I understand the imperative, but I strongly suggest you make your own. You can get great masa at a lot of places, although I am currently crushed out on the masa at La Morena, next to Guisados in Boyle Heights, because they actually make their own nixtamal. It won't matter if they're a little clumsy; in fact, it may even be better that way. Your mother will believe that she raised you correctly.
But you're not going to make the tamales, I can already tell. I don't make them either, I shamefully admit — when I'm not having this fact pointed out to me by one of my mother-in-law's friends. I, too, wait for them magically to appear on the tables that are not my own. But when I'm standing in a shivering line for tamales on the eve of a holiday, it is almost always at Juanito's, the venerable tamalero on Floral near Eastern in East L.A. I love Juanito's tamales, even better than I do the homemade kind, although I will never admit this. The masa is firm and thin; there is a bonus layer of it inside the wrapping husk; and the tamales are steamed in broth to give them a bit more flavor. I always get the red ones, but the cheese-stuffed tamales with hot green chiles are really good, too, as are the sweet ones with pineapple. (The sweet tamales at Guisados are even better, if you're keeping score.) And you can usually pick up a package of cornmeal cookies for the road.
It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to reserve your tamales pretty soon — by the week before Christmas eve, every tamal will have been spoken for weeks earlier, although it is sometimes possible to show up right before closing time and snag a dozen that somebody neglected to pick up in time.
If you want a second opinion, my mother-in-law always gets the ones from La Mascota.