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Tamale Trail: San Jose, Gilroy, Hayward

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Tamale Trail: San Jose, Gilroy, Hayward

Melanie Wong | Jan 14, 2003 06:37 PM

Growing up in Salinas, our family follows the Mexican tradition of enjoying tamales at Christmas time. On the drive down on Christmas Eve, I thought I could just pick up some on the way. Silly me, I should know that you have to place an order in advance for Christmas time tamales.

Our first stop was Lucy’s Tamales on Story Road in San Jose that I had spotted a few months ago on the road trip with “chibi”. They had a big sign on the door that they were only open for pick up of special orders. I went inside anyway to be told that the “extras” had sold out by mid-morning.

Traffic on 101 was pretty heavy by now, so we headed west for the back roads. At a stop for gas, I spotted a taqueria in the next strip mall over and hopped a fence to check it out. At Taqueria Juanita’s in south San Jose, they told me there were no more tamales. But I implored them to check again. One lonely chicken tamale for $2 was uncovered and I grabbed it.

Our next opportunity was in Gilroy. We stopped by the Mexican grocer, La Flor de Jalisco. Still all the same Mexican food stuffs, but it’s now run by a Southeast Asian couple. They had 4 tamales left @ $1.25 each from the refrigerator. Then we hit the motherload at Gaeta’s Taqueria in Gilroy which had pork tamales @ $15/dozen, fresh out of the steamer even.

On Christmas Day on our way back to the City we stopped at Golden Century Mall on Story Road in San Jose for lunch. Afterwards we swung by Lucy’s again and found them open with some tamales to sell. No pork ones left, I was able to buy jalapeño and cheese, chicken and sweet tamales for $1.50 each.

A few days later I would find myself in Hayward with Ruth Lafler sampling a pork tamale outside on the sidewalk at Mi Tierra Super Mercado. I bought a dozen here for $12 and a couple tamales de elote too.

Now, how did they taste?

The ones from La Flor de Jalisco were deficient. Gummy masa made me suspect they’d been frozen then defrosted for the holidays. Both the chicken and beef fillings were pasty and had an odd flavor that reminded me of soy protein filler. The sauce for both was bland.

Lucy’s made a good showing with coarse textured and fluffy style of masa. The jalapeño and cheese was my favorite – I liked the use of rubbery white Mexican-style cheese that doesn’t melt away and the long slices of pepper still had some crunch to it. The shredded white meat chicken was tender and moist in a lightish chili sauce with chicken broth-flavored masa. The sweet tamales had raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar mixed into the dense dark-colored masa.

The chicken tamale from Taqueria Juanita’s was awesome and worth the extra coinage even though it was the smallest of the bunch. The smooth and dense masa was only a thin shell around an abundant and juicy filling. The chicken filling was big chunks of moist dark meat stewed with assorted chili pieces and sauce.

Mi Tierra’s were the largest in size and the least expensive. The masa hit a mid-point compromising between fluffy and dense/heavy. They were filled with a lot of pork cut into chunks that were sometimes a bit tough. The spicy chili sauce had more kick than most. The tamales de elote were nothing special with too little sweet corn and not enough flavor.

Gaeta’s showed the best, perhaps because they were still warm and only needed a couple minutes gentle resuscitation in the steamer to serve them at home. The masa was well-flavored with stock in the old-fashioned larded, smooth style. The pork filling had nice size chunks of succulent tender meat and very spicy sauce. The salsa roja provided as an accompaniment also turned up the heat. These are the tamales of my childhood memories.

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