When we moved down here five years ago, there were tamale carts on every corner, tamale carts in every parking lot, tamale carts at the park, and tamale carts on the playing fields.
Every market had its tamale cart beside the entrance. Even the local barbershop had a cart. I could walk a block in any direction and eat tamales from a cart. Then, all of a sudden, they disappeared. Which is okay, since they weren’t very good in the first place.
I ordered some tacos and tamales from the Old Town El Indio one day about a year ago when I was passing by — high-priced, not delicious. There are different kinds of tamales; my neighbors from Nayarit make them different than my neighbors from Guanajuato. Wasn’t loving them, either style.
The thing about tamales is they are labor intensive; to get the best results they shouldn’t be mass produced. What happens is people try to make large batches of tamales fast. If you don’t take the time to make them right, they won’t turn out right, that’s all there is to it.
My grandmother made tamales every Christmas. Hers were Tex-Mex style: smallish and rectangular, smooth corn dough, shredded pork in red chili sauce, folded cornhusks. The preparations began early; my grandfather would order a pig head in early December. My grandmother would start buying dried cornhusks, dried chili pods (two kinds, New Mexico and California), and other things that would keep. She’d sort the husks and the chili pods and put them aside for soaking. On Christmas Eve morning, when it was time to get going, she’d get out her big tamale pots, her meat pots, her cornhusk and corn-dough tubs. The corn dough was brought in and prepared to taste, the cornhusks soaked, the head and additional meat cooked and shredded, the sauce prepared with the different chili pods. One or two friends and her sister-in-law helped with the preliminary work.
When all that was done, it was time to assemble the tamales. By then it would be late afternoon; friendly calls would go out. The house would start to fill with family and their company, friends and their family and company, and neighbors and their family and company. My grandfather would serve up Coke-and-whiskeys, or rompope, homemade eggnog he made himself spiked with cane alcohol snuck across the border from Tijuana. The men would stand around the kitchen, the women slapped and smeared corn dough on husks, and my grandmother doled the meat into the dough, folded the tamales, and put them into pots to steam on the stove. There was music, people talking louder and louder and laughing, singing, and my grandmother trying to keep the corn-dough women in order, struggling to be heard. The kitchen was fragrant with the smell of cooking tamales.
Eventually somebody got too drunk and did something funny and that really got the party rolling. By the time the first batches of tamales were cooked and people started eating and drinking hot coffee or champurrado, it was a great Christmas Eve. Starting that evening and going through days until the tamales ran out, everyone would drop by for tamales, eating them there as they came off the stove and taking some home. My grandmother always tried to keep count of how many tamales were made but never could do better than estimate. We made something like 500 tamales every year.
If you like Tex-Mex style tamales, I can recommend one guy who makes excellent ones. He sells them at the Memorial [Park] playing fields on Sundays when the teams are playing. You can get fair tamales at a cart in front of Rancho Fresco on César Chávez and National Avenue. You can get okay tamales in the cold weather at McCord’s Bakery on 30th and National. And you can get so-so tamales at Las Cuatro Milpas on César Chávez and Logan Avenue.
Las Cuatro Milpas has been around so long, my grandparents ate there when they worked at the tuna cannery. After my grandfather passed away and my grandmother stopped cooking, I started going there more often when I wanted a bowl of beans and rice or some tacos. Las Cuatro Milpas makes its tortillas on site — corn and flour — there in your view at the back of the store. You can buy packages of fresh, hot tortillas when they have them; they often run out by midday. The lines are long at breakfast and lunch, but if you go after the rush — say, nine in the morning or two in the afternoon — you can get in without too much waiting.
Las Cuatro Milpas has a really limited menu. Pork tamales, tacos (beef or chicken), burritos (beef or chicken), beans and rice, chorizo with egg. That’s it. You can have the tacos flat or rolled. When you order flat tacos, they drop the shells into a pan of hot grease for a few seconds, take them out, and fill them with shredded meat, shredded lettuce, and grated Mexican cheese. Rolled tacos, they drop the tacos into the pan, take them out, and cover them with shredded lettuce, tomato salsa, sour cream, and grated Mexican cheese. If you like your tacos fried, those are good.
I read about this place on 31st and National, Tacos el Paisa, so I went there to see what they were about. You stand in line outside to order your food. They have a row of little glass barrels filled with iced aguas frescas, drinks made from tamarindo, jamaíca, horchata, melon, pineapple, and my all-time favorite, strawberry. Next to the drink stand is the grill where they keep the beans warm and grill chilies, huge gueritos and jalapeños, and sliced onions. You order the kind of tacos you want — carne asada, carnitas, chicken, adobado, cabeza, tripa — then you either wait for it as a take-out order or you sit down inside the open-door restaurant or on the patio. The waitress brings you your drink, a tray of appetizers, a plate of grilled onions and chilis, and a cup of the beans — which are cooked just right, and you can get seconds if you ask. The tacos come a minute later. They are hot and fresh — the tortillas are soft corn, filled with generous servings of meat, sprinkled with fresh chopped onions and cilantro. You can add toppings from the appetizer tray. Delicious, and not at all expensive. The drinks are two bucks; the tacos, less than two bucks each. The only drawback is they play radio music full blast.
Oh, one other thing, same as with Las Cuatro Milpas: flies. You have to wave your hand over your food to keep them from landing on your food. Oh, there you go, making that face just because I mentioned flies. Please: same hand-waving technique applies when you’re barbecuing or having a picnic. Just deal with it. Or eat your tacos at Jack in the Box, Del Taco, Burger King, Taco Bell, or any other hermetically sealed fake-o taco place on the planet. No flies, no flavor.