One step inside the off-white structure on Compton Boulevard (which looks more like a house with a sign above the front door than a tamale factory) and it's easy to see why customers travel from all over Los Angeles and Orange counties to buy steamed tamales by the dozen at La Doña Tamalería.
Aside from a few tables and a small waiting area in front of the register, every other usable inch of the space is dedicated to an overwhelmingly efficient (and entirely visible) tamale assembly line, where a handful of dedicated tamaleras husk the incoming cobs, blend the ingredients in a huge mixer, steam the finished products in gigantic vats, then load them into plastic bags for sale.
The entire process — which happens consistently and continuously during operating hours — is a dazzling ode to corn.
Like other makers of authentic tamales in Los Angeles, the holidays are a busy time for La Doña Tamalería. Because Mexican tradition usually reserves the all-day labor of love that is tamale creation for special occasions like Christmas, it's during the weeks leading up to Dec. 25 that demand for the meat-, cheese- and fruit-filled masa meals skyrockets.
The small tamale shops that dot East L.A. and the San Fernando Valley make a few kinds of tamales each day and tend to run out early. The neighborhood abuelita starts to make her door-to-door rounds, fresh tamales loaded up on a baby stroller. Many Latino restaurants offer their own versions of the dish around Christmas, usually only available in limited quantities to those who order in advance.
But at La Doña Tamalería — an unassuming Compton operation that has churned out thousands of the things per day for the last 10 years — tasty tamales created en masse are not just a seasonal specialty but a daily way of life. Besides weekend menudo and birria, no other food is made on the premises and, from kernel to husk, all parts of the maize get used.
This impressive perpetual production dance is all orchestrated by La Doña herself, who for nearly 15 hours a day oversees both the creation and sale of her beloved tamales, which are a hard-to-find commodity in southern L.A. County.
Ask how many she sells per day, and she'll simply tell you, "A lot." Press her for a more specific number, and she'll clarify it with, "A lot, a lot," as if counting it all would be too arduous a task.
We tried to do the math ourselves and it started to add up quickly.
On a recent weekend day, with a quick-moving line constantly to the door, it was easy to see, growing around the central assembly tables, neatly stacked piles of pork tamales with brick-red meat shooting out the sides. Each mountain already contained several hundred wrapped tamales, the results of only several hours of work.
Multiply that not only by more time but also by the work put into creating a day's load for the other six varieties on the menu, and the number of freshly made tamales going out the door at La Doña Tamalería is head-spinning.
Equally head-spinning as the creation of La Doña's tamales is their quality, not to mention their cost. On weekdays, the storefront sells only the basics: elote (sweet corn), tomatillo-simmered chicken, chile-spiked pork, and jalepeño and cheese.
On weekends, chile-soaked shredded beef, sweet pineapple and Kool-Aid–colored strawberry tamales are added to the lineup. Each one is made with some variation of the same soft, slightly sweet masa and has a filling-to-grain ratio that defies its $1.15 price tag. A dozen cooked tamales will set you back only $14 — making them the cheapest Christmas tamales we could find being advertised in L.A. this year. (Many of the tamale shops in East L.A.. sell theirs for around $17 a dozen, while Loteria Grill's gourmet tamales, by comparison, are upwards of $52 a dozen.)
The best part is: La Doña Tamalería's factory operation is charging full steam ahead at all times, ensuring there will never be a shortage of your favorite tamales, no matter the time of year. Arrive at 6 a.m. when it opens and you'll get however many fresh tamales you need. Stop by at 8 p.m. on your way home from work and you'll still be able to purchase the same. You can even go instead to the newer South Gate store, which sells product made in Compton in a more restaurant-like setting.
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Buying a dozen warm, steamy tamales on-demand during the holidays? It's an L.A. Christmas miracle!
La Doña Tamalería , 4818 E. Compton Blvd., Compton; (310) 635-4800. Also 10429 Atlantic Ave., South Gate. (323) 249-0602