Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe

Growing up in Godzone I knew approximately zero Mexican folks, so the classic weather forecast "chilli today, hot tamale" went right over my head. Thankfully, I 've learned a lot since then and have been itching to get to Mama's Hot Tamale Cafe [2124 W. Seventh St. Los Angeles (213) 487-7474] to check out the scene. It's a gaily decorated non-profit restaurant where skilled tamale makers learn capitalist precepts or some such, the key is that the recipes are straight from the source and the tamales are killin'. With three hungry dudes we made a good run at the menu, greatly aided by sage advice from our waiter. The six tamales we sampled:

Honduras. Chicken with potatoes, olives, raisins, rice. Much like a Nicaraguan nacatamal, this was predictably my favourite tamale. The masa of these Central American tamals is a squishy miracle that practically disintegrates when one looks at it, and the variety of produce inside guarantees excitement in every bite. It's strictly a matter of personal preference, but this is my Platonic ideal of what a tamale should be.

Valle de Oaxaca, pollo. Chicken with mole negro that has a satisfying richness and isn't too sweet. The masa has the cornier Mexican flavour.

Guatemala. Pork with a tomatoey red sauce. I think this would be better than the same tamale with chicken, the other white meat is a stronger complement to the heavy sauce. I hadn't tasted this type of tamale before and it was a pleasant surprise though closer to the Mexican than Nicaraguan masa style.

Peru. Spinach, mushrooms, garlic and onions. Mushroom flavour predominated in this tasty veterinarian tamale. Reminded me of the empanada de huitlacoche at Guelaguetza.

Valle de Oaxaca, vegetariano. Surprisingly different from the chicken tamale of the same name, this really was the hottest tamale by virtue of rajas/jalapeno slices. Cheesy and delicious.

Usulutan, El Salvador. We couldn't pass up the classic elote/sweet corn tamale with the cake-y texture and delightful taste of mais. When it comes to sweet tamales I am a minimalist but am willing to expand my horizons in future, particularly because the Colombian tamale contains guayaba!

Mama's enters the pantheon as one of my favourite Mexican restaurants of all time. These tamale riches are yours for a paltry $2.25 a throw, and the privilege of assembling a tamale tasting menu cannot be overstated. Then again, maybe I'll eat nothing but the Honduras next time...


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