Tamales are family food — that is, food that should be made by the whole family. That’s why the tidy little packages are such a staple in Mexican and Southwestern homes around Christmastime: They’re labor-intensive, so making them in big batches (with many hands) is the best way to optimize time. And that means eating them in big batches, too. But modern families are often spread across the continent, and when they do get together, there’s seldom time for a group cooking party, so commercial kitchens have stepped in to offer tamales in bulk to take home for the holiday table. Last week we put together a list of places to pick up tamales by the dozen — including old favorites La Popular and Tamales by La Casita — and advised readers to order early.
But if you’re craving tamales now and are fighting the urge to dig into that precious bag in the freezer (you know, the one you bought for Christmas), there are a number of options for a feast ahead of the big day. Tamales are deceptively simple: a little corn masa, a little streak of green or red chile with pork, beef or chicken, all wrapped in a corn husk. That’s what you expect when you buy in bulk, but when you sit down at a restaurant, you want something more than what you can whip up at home. Fortunately, there are plenty of options in town for traditional and modern tamales from Mexico and beyond, ranging from shareable appetizers to fútbol-sized monsters.
Tarasco’s New Latino Cuisine
470 South Federal Boulevard
Tarasco’s serves the cuisine of Michoacán along with a dizzying list of blended fruit and vegetable smoothies. The kitchen is known for its thick and complex moles: brick-red mole de siete chiles, pea-soup-colored mole verde, and a rare mole amarillo. If you want to sample a little of the deep-red mole before diving into a whole entree, the menu includes a tamal Oaxaqueño appetizer for only $3.50.
Instead of a corn husk, this tamal comes wrapped in a banana leaf, which changes both the flavor and the texture of the contents within, a thin but dense layer that barely hides a spoonful of shredded chicken. A slick of mole is added before the package is wrapped and steamed, tinting the whole thing the color of wet Oaxacan soil.
It’s a good appetizer to share between two or three people, since bites can easily be sliced off without making a mess of everything. The bold, smoky flavor of the mole dominates, but a subtle floral, herbal note — the result of the banana leaf — can be detected in the masa.
If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to tamales, Tarasco’s also offers a simple yet exquisite version wrapped in a corn husk and filled with kernels of sweet corn for $2. Both are delicious and warming, especially when followed by one of the restaurant’s hearty soups.
3230 East Colfax Avenue
Mezcal has always been a late-night favorite for those seeking tacos and margaritas on East Colfax, but owners Chris Swank and Loris Venegas closed the lively cantina for three months over the summer to retool the kitchen and menu. The result, delivered by consulting chef Chris Douglas, features a deeper dive into Mexican cuisine — beyond the standard antojitos that go so well with tequila and mezcal.
So you’ll find a plate of carne a la Tampiqueña (made a little more Colorado with the use of 7X Ranch wagyu beef), a salmon adobado and a trio of pork-belly tacos — but wedged between the bocadillos (small bites) and the platos fuertes (big plates) are a couple of tamales that could easily stand in as full-fledged entrees. The first is a fat duck-confit tamal bursting from a corn husk, with a smooth, mellow mole rojo drizzled over the mound of shredded duck leg and pooled beneath it on the plate.
The second is a vegan tamal, steamed in a banana leaf and stuffed with poblano peppers and caramelized onion. The small beast comes topped with plumped golden raisins and roasted-poblano salsa, combining sweet, savory and spicy elements in each forkful. Though not quite as filling as the duck tamal, it’s still plenty of food for one person.
While upscale Mexican restaurants often get criticized for being too American or for catering to gringo palates, Mezcal — especially with its tamales — delivers traditional flavors and good value: The meatless tamal rings in at $7, while the duck-confit version is just a dollar more. And the light, fluffy (almost bready) masa, the thick mole and the notes of roasted chiles throughout are sure to please any tamal purist.
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5922 East Colfax Avenue
Most of us think of tamales as being distinctly Mexican, but plenty of other Latin American countries have their own versions of the wrapped and steamed treasures. Los Parceros brings the cuisine of Colombia to East Colfax; its tamal de pollo is as enormous and overwhelming as its tiny dining room is cute and welcoming. Colombian tamales are almost like a stew in a tidy package, with chicken, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables all surrounded by moist masa wrapped in a banana leaf. The construction is a little more free-form — like a hobo bundle — than the more uniform rectangles or cylinders typical in Mexican cuisine. And the size is a real surprise.
The tamal at Los Parceros ($10) takes up an entire plate and comes with a side of rice or a thick, plain arepa. Slow-cooked shreds of chicken poke up from the center of the masa, but a few forkfuls in, you’ll discover that it came from an entire bone-in thigh. The meat and vegetables create their own sauce, which soaks into the cornmeal like a sponge. Folds of banana leaf hide chunks of potato and bits of masa, making the dish seem never-ending.
The seasoning, as is the case in many other Colombian dishes, is mild, but the kitchen is happy to provide bottled hot sauce for those in need of an extra kick. The stewy bundle, meanwhile, will keep you plenty warm on a winter day.