The gift exchanges are great and all, but the holiday season means one thing in particular for those who love food: It’s tamale time!
The six weeks or so between Thanksgiving and New Year’s mark the high time for tamales. They’re a present of sorts on their own, with a husk or peel ready to be unwrapped, and about as traditional as turkey and baked ham in many Mexican American households during the holidays.
The roots of tamales stretch back thousands of years to Mesoamerican times. Back then, tamales were stuffed with whatever proteins could be easily sourced, whether it was iguana or various insects. The tamales of today take on a much more savory approach, sometimes are served sweet, but also can take on a variety of regional influences. Just about any food item that can be stuffed inside a tamale and withstand steaming is fair game.
As beloved as the classic pork tamale wrapped in a corn husk may be, Sacramento is home to many different tamale styles. So, let’s put on a scarf, rev up the car and take a drive to some tamale hot spots around town.
Here are some of the tamale styles you’ll find here:
We start on the north side of Sacramento, an area slightly less traveled for local food enthusiasts in search of mom-and-pop Mexican cuisine. While Sacramento’s south area teems with its Mexican bakeries and carniceria meat markets, Northgate Boulevard has long been a haven for taco trucks and regionally specific Mexican foods.
“La Flor de Michoacán” translates to “the flower of Michoacán,” referencing the southwestern Mexican state known for its abundant agriculture and livestock. You’ll find La Flor tucked into a multi-culti strip mall that includes other Mexican eateries and a Halal market as neighbors.
Along with Mexican tamales loaded with chicken and pork, La Flor de Michoacan also specializes in Salvadoran dishes, particularly the thick tortilla-like pupusa that’s stuffed with such fillings as beans, cheese and meats.
Tamales here also take a Salvadoran slant and are wrapped in plantain leaves, versus the usual corn husks that signify Mexican tamales. Some regions of Mexico, especially those states with a tropical climate such as Veracruz and Chiapas, also tend to use plantain leaves when making tamales. But around these parts, corn husks are generally the go-to wrapping for Mexican tamales.
Step up to the counter for a bit of Salvadoran flavor – cash only, please – and you’ll eventually be served rectangular-shaped tamales with a dark green wrapping. These banana leaves seem to trap steam to an even deeper level than corn husks, making for a masa that’s creamy instead of slightly crumbly. The steam wafting from the banana leaf brings a slightly vegetal but tropical touch to the typical tamale-eating experience.
For those who’ve eaten Mexican tamales exclusively, the Salvadoran style makes for a welcome spin. The Salvadoran tamales at La Flor de Michoacán come with chicken or pork, and filled with chickpeas, diced potato and chilies. The pork tamale tastes especially good, with its meat-and-potato action snug in a creamy masa. We’re sold on Salvadoran style.
As much as tamales taste good with meat, sometimes we need something sweet. That calls for dessert-style tamales stuffed with pineapple, raisins or even chocolate.
So we head east to the auto row on Fulton Avenue. In a shopping center tucked near the car lots, La Flor Pupusas Grill – the sister restaurant of La Flor de Michoacán – awaits with a window painting of Frosty the Snowman saying “Feliz Navidad.”
Sweet fillings such as honey and fruits have been a feature of tamales since pre-Colombian times. In more modern methods, condensed milk, cinnamon and brown sugar might be added to the masa. Once steamed, with chocolate or fruit stuffed into the center, the result is one sweet and filling treat.
Along with its chicken and pork tamales, both Mexican and Salvadoran style, La Flor Pupusas Grill offers tamales with pineapple, raisin, plus a sweet corn tamale with no meat. The pineapple tamale features small chunks of fruit and a sweet masa that’s especially kid-friendly. For the rest of us, these tamales might pair best with a cup of morning coffee, or as a kicker for dessert.
Amid the lunch rush foot traffic on the K Street Mall, one bistro, tucked near Esquire Grill at 13th and K streets, offers one of the most atypical tamales in town.
Among the cubicle-friendly lunch menu of sandwiches, salads and wraps you’ll find tamales a la Peru at Tantric Urban Bistro. Tamales, after all, are common to most Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas, each lending their own flavors and influences.
Similar to the Salvadoran style, these rectangular Peruvian tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. The signature tamale fillings of Peru are also showcased here, including bits of hard-boiled egg, pork, pitless olive and jalapeño. Though the pork hasn’t been marinated, no hot sauce is needed here. These exceptionally tasty tamales are seasoned enough on their own. A salsa of onions, cilantro, lemon juice and hot peppers is traditionally served on the side in Peru.
Tantric Urban Bistro owner Michael Soler added these tamales to the menu about four years ago. He’s a native of Lima, Peru, and wanted to add a taste of home – but in this case has made one Americanized concession.
“This one is a small version,” said Soler. “The tamale in Peru is a whole meal by itself. But the banana leaf makes the masa very moist. When you open it up, you get extra flavor. People try one and want a dozen.”
For an especially proper taste of Peru, grab an Inca Kola, the signature soft drink of Peru that tastes of mint and bubble gum, and is also available at Tantric Urban Bistro.
Scarfing on tamales through the holiday season certainly isn’t the best way to manage that waistline, especially given the copious amounts of lard that’s often used in masa dough for a richer flavor and especially moist texture.
So we’re off the south Sacramento to scout out Emma’s Tamales, which sells vegan and vegetarian tamales along with the traditional kinds favored by carnivores. This spot is a little tricky to find at first. Emma’s Tamales is tucked into an industrial-looking business complex that includes a tire service center and MacQue’s Bar-B-Que as fellow tenants.
The storefront for Emma’s strikes one as a kind of oasis for tamales. Along with a humble tamale cart and counter offering plenty of options, the spot features picnic tables.
Emma’s specializes in a socially conscious and nutritionally sound kind of product. GMOs are a big no-no here, as is lard. Much of the produce and fillings are locally sourced, such as the tofu from Sacramento Tofu Co.
“We believe that eating well helps you lead a better life,” said Staci Gallardo, the owner and founder of Emma’s Tamales. “We formulated a tamale to eat on a daily basis that’s healthy for people on the go, like a sandwich.”
This sounds responsible and all, but do they taste like hippie food that has more idealism than taste, or a true tamale?
We order a vegan chipotle tofu veggie tamale – now that’s a mouthful to say – and take a bite. Then another bite ... and another. Lard and meat be darned, this vegan tamale tastes surprisingly hearty and satisfying. It’s plump with tofu, corn, spicy chilies and other veggies – and only 200 calories, too? Next time we’ll try the “original savory” vegan tamale, and perhaps a pint of fresh salsa.
No matter your animal politics, these are some tasty tamales. We’ll be back.
Classic Mexican tamales
The tamale tour winds down at perhaps the mother-of-all Mexican markets in Sacramento: La Esperanza Bakery. The sweet, heady aromas of freshly baked pan dulce inside offer the perfect respite from the December chill. But along with being a sanctuary for the sweet tooth with La Esperanza’s pastries, this shop teems with tamales during the holidays, be it pork, chicken and jalapeño with cheese.
La Esperanza sells a much sought-after masa dough used by home tamale cooks, offered both with and without lard. During the week before Christmas, store manager Jorge Plasencia says, the bakery sells about 20,000 pounds of masa – enough for tons of tamales.
But not everyone has time during the holiday rat race to make tamales. To take care of those tamale cravings, look for the steamer near the cash registers at La Esperanza. Wonderfully savory tamales can be had for just $1.25 a pop. They’re the traditional tamale style found in Northern California, with corn husks and a spiced-up pork filling snug in a bed of firm masa that’s easily pliable with a fork. Plasencia is the keeper of La Esperanza’s recipes, and this particular one for tamales has been used for 20 years.
These tamales from La Esperanza have just what we’re looking for: a fairly even ratio of meat to masa, savory and spicy flavor, rich corn masa – and you can’t eat just one.
“You can have them for breakfast, or lunch or dinner,” Plasencia said. “And they taste so good.”