Photo by Anne Fishbein

On a hot summer morning, there may be no urban pleasure more satisfying than leaning against a palm tree in MacArthur Park, the faded urban paradise that is gradually being restored to the sleek, mysterious beauty recognizable from Raymond Chandler novels, flanked by once-elegant 1920s residential hotels, a hand-colored post card come to jostling, fragrant life. On most weekends there will be neo-Aztec dancers or soapbox orators or troupes of uniformed Korean evangelists that Aimee Semple McPherson would have recognized, a free brass-band concert or festival or political rally, and, if you are lucky, a glistening, cold bottle of banana-flavored Honduran soda pop in your fist. A fountain in the center of the lake rockets high into the cloudless sky. Kites are flown. Toddlers somersault down gentle grassy slopes.

Not least in the park’s renaissance is the line of elegant wooden tamale carts along Alvarado, each run by a vendor from a different part of Latin America, each selling its own particular kind of tamales, one better than the next: banana-leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamales oozing black mole sauce, wet chicken tamales from Honduras and spicy green-chile tamales from Acapulco, densely sweet little torpedos from El Salvador and grainy tamales from Michoacán. The park used to be best known as a source of counterfeit green cards and cheap non-pharmaceuticals; now, thanks to the official sidewalk-vending district, the only one of its kind in the city, it may eventually be known for its delicious tamales instead. Urban planners have their own specialized names for this kind of project, but it basically comes down to the theory that enough legalized tamales can drive the illegal stuff out of the park.

The driving force behind the vending district is Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, a sprawling, brightly painted complex across the street from the park that provides the kind of curatorial services and logistical support to the district’s tamale masters that in a better world MOCA would be providing to Los Angeles artists. The vendors are trained here as professional cooks; the tamales are prepared in the kitchens; the technical aspects of food preparation are closely monitored. The MacArthur Park neighborhood is one of the most diverse in Los Angeles, home to people from all over Latin America, and the tamale, which is made in one form or another practically everywhere Spanish is spoken, is an ideal symbol of the neighborhood mosaic: one dish, one hundred different interpretations.

In the café, a small bookstore is stocked with all the usual revolutionary classics, plus the odd García Márquez or Vargas Llosa novel in Spanish. A massive wooden table serves as an informal boardroom for the community, and a gallery sells paintings and jewelry by local artists. The goateed dude who runs the coffee bar, who couldn’t look more like an Eastside bohemian intellectual if he had stepped out of a Lalo Alcaraz drawing, reads The New York Review of Books at a corner table, occasionally getting up to make a cappuccino or Mexican mocha for a customer.

There is a slightly utopian element to the venture, like something dreamed up during the third sleepless night of a Justice for Janitors sit-in or a long bus ride to the Capitol Mall. But judging from the number of community activists and families and men in crisp chef’s whites who course through in an average afternoon, the café has been thoroughly absorbed into the community. And as a neighborhood restaurant, Mama’s Hot Tamales is fantastic.

Cafés in Mexico are not so different from this in the mornings, with excellent coffee, red-sauced chilaquiles at that nexus of bendy and crisp, peppery little cubes of fried potato, impeccable refried beans, fried country eggs, freshly made tomatillo salsa. There is a surprisingly good Oaxacan mole here, slightly less complex than its equivalent at Guelaguetza perhaps, but rich, deeply flavored, sneakily spicy, with shredded chicken threaded through the sauce almost as a thickener. The tlayuda, a sort of thin, steak-topped Oaxacan pizza as big around as a manhole cover, is much more tender than you will usually find — I had thought a certain leatheriness to the gigantic crust was characteristic — and elegantly garnished with black beans, squeaky queso fresco and sliced carne asada.

But mostly, of course, there are the tamales, a dozen or so available each day from a rotating list of about 50, each prepared by a cook from its area of origin, from Acapulco to Mexico City to Lima to Huehutenango, wrapped in avocado leaves or banana leaves or corn husks, wet and dry, spicy and mild, dense and polenta-like. Mama’s brings Los Angeles together, one tamale at a time.

Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, 2124 W. Seventh St., downtown; (213) 487-7474. Breakfast and lunch, seven days, 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. No alcohol. Coffee bar. Takeout. Validated parking. AE, D, MC, V. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $7–$14.

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