Tis the season for tamales, fa la la la la la la la la
Hopefully posters will share their favorites on this side of the bay.
My own personal tamale crawl spanned a few weeks and started by accident. Before I knew it I was hooked and soon was thumbing through Tamales 101 (see link below) to gain a better understanding of the tamale. Who knew there were more than a dozen ways to fold a tamale and it was called by so many names in different countries. More detail in the cookbook link.
The book was bought at the end o the crawl, so styles of wrapping were not noted, only if wrapping (if any) was corn husk or banana leaf. This started with chicken tamale from Café Euro, so for comparison, if chicken was available, chicken was ordered. Did not notice until well into the crawl that, like carnitas, many places only make tamales on the weekends. That is noted if it is known.
The following tamales were sampled;
CAFÉ EURO 23 rd Street, Berkeley
CASA LATINO San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
EL TAZAMEL - San Pablo Avenue, San Pablo
FONDA Solano Avenue, Albany
HACIENDA - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
MI TIERRA FOODS San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
PUP HUT - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
TACUBAYA 4 th Street, Berkeley
TRES HERMANAS - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
VALLEY PRODUCE - San Pablo Avenue, Pinole
Listing is approximately in order of favorite to least favorite. The tamales at the top I really liked, the ones at the bottom ... well ...
TACUBAYA Tamal de Veduras - $3.95 large kabocha squash, white bean and roasted poblanos steamed in banana leaves with salsa roja, crema & cilantro (daily)
So untraditional, so delicious. Served unwrapped on the banana leaf topped with salsa and drizzled with cream, it was a spicy complex wonder. This really was what propelled the tamale crawl full force. The light, fluffy, fresh masa is amazing with the sweetest corn taste. Vegetarian. No lard involved.
CAFÉ EURO Chicken - $1.25 small wrapped in corn husk (daily may be seasonal)
Wonderful moist masa with the most deeply flavored pieces of chicken stewed in a spicy red sauce. One of the best. The shop also specializes in Mexican beverages. The only place to give me a answer when I asked which was the best tamale. Chicken, she said smiling. Excellent pick.
CASA LATINO - $1.95 Chicken Verde - medium - wrapped in corn husks (daily)
Healthy version using organic chicken breast and olive oil rather than lard, and yet it was very tasty ... even though it was kept in the cooler and heated in the microwave. Masa has fresh diced green pepper in it. No really, this works. Comes with salsa and crema. The quality ingredients show.
TACUBAYA Pork Tamal - $3.95 large - shredded pork and mole negro wrapped in corn husk (daily)
No lard involved. Organic pork. There is a denser more traditional masa for this tamale and the sweet tamale ... not the light masa used for the vegetable tamale. The lean pork filling could have had more flavor, the masa wasnt as moist as I prefer, but what elevates this is the spicy mole with the chocolate a pronounced flavor.
TRES HERMANAS Pork - $1.50 medium large wrapped in corn husks (weekends or special order)
No chicken on the day I visited. Cubes of tender pork in a tomato sauce with only a suggestion of spice and a moist masa. I had a certain eau de pork about me for a while after this tamale. About a year ago, I was betting this place would be out of business because it had so few customers. People found it and it has quite a bit of business. Dont mess with the head Hermana. She let me know she was doing me a favor selling a single tamale. They are only sold by the half dozen, dozen or part of a tamale plate. Big sign in the window that says place Christmas tamale orders early. Glancing at the tables, the same chips and salsa were served, not the strong point of the place ... skip them. Nice soups and HUGE burritos. Two days required for special order tamales.
VALLEY PRODUCE chicken - $1.39 medium wrapped in corn husks (weekends only)
Generous, medium tingly-spicy chicken with nice poultry flavor in moist masa.
MI TIERRA FOODS chicken - $1.25 small wrapped in corn husks
Mildly spicy minced chicken filling with a sour nopale-like tang. The best thing about this place is the extras - three types of salsa, pickled peppers/carrots and green peppers with charred skins. The best ... THE BEST ... Jamaica aqua fresca in the Bay Area almost black, the color of dried Jamaica, not sweet with the truest flavor. Worth a stop just for this drink. They also carry my beloved tacos by Taqueria de Margurey (look for the gold label). Also they sell a bottled non carbonated soda I havent seen much called Chapparitas which is very popular in some areas of Mexico.
TACUBAYA Tamal Dulce $3.50 large - sweet tamale with raisins and pecans (daily)
Lard is not involved. The raisins were delicious and plump. There was a nice caramel syrup drizzled on it, but it would not be something Id order again.
FONDA chicken - $6.00 small not wrapped (daily)
While it was nicely done and mildly spicy, not only was it forgettable, but ... come on ... SIX DOLLARS ... no, no, no. The price places this near the bottom and really it wasnt intriguing enough that Id order it at a lower price.
EL TAZAMEL Chicken - $2.11 large wrapped in banana leaves - Moist El Salvadorian style tamale with pieces of chicken and small green olives with pits
While El Tazamel has the best pupusa in the Bay Area, the tamal was disappointing. The masa was extremely moist but bland. No spice to the filling and the masa overwhelmed the chicken inside. Almost cost me a filling when I bit down on that olive pit. Ive had great versions of El Salvadorian tamales which I prefer to the Mexican variety. This was only just fine. Based on the pupusa, greatness was expected.
PUP HUT chicken - $1.50 small wrapped in corn husks (daily)
Nice spicy filling, but the masa had dry spots and there was a burnt spot. Ordered this just before closing, so they might have been in the pot too long.
HACIENDA beef - $4.99 small no wrapping (daily)
These only come as part of a lunch plate with two tamales. The lunch is generous with chips, two bowls of salsa, soup or salad, refried beans and delicious rice. The tamales were not great. The masa was on the dryish side and the shredded beef filling had no spice.
While there were different wrapping styles for these tamales, none had any true craftsmanship with nice corn husk ties. Im going to spend the next month eating oatmeal for breakfast and salmon for dinner with a glass of red wine in the hopes of clearing out my arteries.