A late post perhaps, but the next festival isn’t for another nine months, so late is definitely better than never. This is a report of our visit by four of us to the Indio International Tamale Festival in December 2007. We sampled close to a dozen different tamales.
From CATHY’S GOURMET TAMALES in Pomona we had two. First was a sweet pork tamale with pineapple & chile sauce. Pork was an al pastor-style. Overall we felt that the tamale was too sweet. Second tamale was a Big Daddy’s with pork & a spicy-hot seven-pepper sauce (one of the seven peppers was habanero). Both tamales had little meat filling so that the tamale as a whole had little flavor from the filling. Masa was a butter-based masa which was crumbly but okay. Overall rating: C.
From CORN MAIDEN based in Harbor City we tried two. Corn Maiden was the 2nd place finisher in the “gourmet commercial” category in 2006. First tamale we tried was blue corn, chicken, & habanero sauce. The habanero sauce was not very pronounced & could have been stronger. Second tamale was a green chile & smoked gouda. The gouda was hard to taste in this tamale. Both tamales had a very fluffy masa which we didn’t particularly like, & there was too much masa. Early on we found ourselves drawn to tamales made with a little bit of a thick or denser masa; these tamales were the exact opposite. Both of these tamales were okay: not bad but also nothing special. The exotic ingredients & fillings built up an expectation for something that didn’t really match the actual taste. Overall rating: C+.
From BARRETT’S tamales we tried another two. If I understand correctly, Barrett’s was the first place finisher in the “gourmet commercial” category in 2006. First tamale was a bar-b-qued chicken, red onion, cilantro & gouda. The chicken was sweet & we couldn’t taste the gouda. Second tamale was spinach, artichoke heart, corn & chipotle. Very little artichoke & the distinctive briny taste of artichoke heart was missing. The spinach inside was nicely wilted & not overcooked, & the corn kernels inside were tasty but there weren’t many of them. Masa on both tamales was unpleasantly goopy. Overall rating: C-.
From ANAYA’S we tried a cheese tamale. Cheese was nice & spicy, but there was too much masa & the masa was wet & crumbly. Okay tamale but probably not worth trying again, especially when there are other, better tamales around. Overall rating: C+ or B-.
From EL SINALOENSE we tried a bean tamale. Beans inside were pureed, included some potato, but no sauce on top. Bean/potato filling was tasty, but with only three ingredients (beans, potatoes, & masa) the overall tamale was a bit bland & dry. Overall rating: C+.
From TAMALES AZTLAN we tried a pollo tamale. This was our favorite: a small booth where they served the tamales out of crock-pots. We liked it so much we returned later to buy a half-dozen tamales de pollo & half-dozen puerco. Chicken filling was dark meat & there was plenty of it. Masa was thin & slightly chewy, like it was rolled out, & not crumbly—this became the standard we compared all the other masas to at the festival. They served the tamales with a deep, red, spicy & delicious red sauce. Overall rating: A.
At the end of our sampling we also tried a couple dessert tamales, though I didn’t write down where they came from; I think we returned to Corn Maiden. One tamale was a Belgian chocolate with raspberries & caramelized walnuts. The masa was not chocolate-flavored (as we had seen from other vendors in a previous year), though there were chocolate flecks in the masa & the filling was chocolate. Raspberry flavor was strong & complemented the chocolate well; raspberry also added a very vibrant red color to the tamale. Walnut taste was largely absent. The other tamale was caramelized apple with cinnamon & butterscotch. This tamale did not have as much overall flavor as the chocolate one we tried, but it was well-infused with sweet apple & caramel flavors. Both of these had a sweet masa & we would likely eat them again. Overall rating: B.
As I mentioned above, this was our second visit to the tamale festival; our first visit was four or five years ago. It seemed to me that there were more different tamales available this year than our previous visit, though we were disappointed that we couldn’t find a shrimp tamale this year—not that we searched every nook & cranny, but we did look for them. The commercially-produced tamales seemed to be more prominent this year than I remember them being during our first visit, too.
I held high hopes for the many tamales with exotic ingredients (the tamales that are usually referred to as “gourmet”). About five or six years ago there was a woman who sold very well-executed gourmet tamales at the Thursday night farmer’s market in San Luis Obispo: her masa was not too thick, her fillings were flavorful, & her sauces were creative. Unfortunately I didn’t see (nor taste) that same high level of execution in the gourmet tamales at the festival. Instead, I found myself drawn toward the more traditional fillings & sauces (chicken or pork spiked with red sauce). And based upon our experience with Tamales Aztlan, next time I’ll be more inclined to stick with the non-profit tamales rather than the commercial ones.