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Corn husk takes on banana leaf

Two tamales enter, both get eaten

That's a corn husk tamal with pork in front, and an equally greasy chicken platano in the back.
That's a corn husk tamal with pork in front, and an equally greasy chicken platano in the back.
Place

Tamales el Mexicano

3504 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

One of my favorite parts about living in San Diego is that I can be cruising down a street on just about any day and spot a little cart selling tamales. I noticed Tamales el Mexicano at its regular location, sitting in front of a liquor store next to a car wash on El Cajon Boulevard, just east of the 805. It’s not much to look at beyond the all-caps TAMALES, printed white on red, but that proved enough to lure me in for a mid-afternoon snack.

Despite a simple bilingual menu, it took me a moment to realize the beef and res tamales, listed separately, are the same thing. Same with the chicken (pollo), pork (puerco), and jalapeño with cheese (con queso).

It’s all para llevar from a tamale cart

One distinct offering offered no translation: hoja de platano. That’s a tamal steamed inside of a banana leaf instead of the traditional corn husk. And by traditional, I mean to northern parts of Mexico and most common in California. In the tropical states of Mexico such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Yucatan — where tamales were probably first eaten somewhere between three and five thousand years ago — they prefer banana leaves.

I’ve had each kind before but never tried them together, so I figured this was a good opportunity to compare them, head to head. The platano tamales only come with chicken or pork fillings, so I ordered the chicken, and then a corn husk tamal with pork. I watched as they were plucked steaming out of the cart and dropped into a plastic bag. It’s all para llevar from a tamale cart.

After a short ride home, I unwrapped the tamales. The corn husk tamal had a nicer presentation, wrapped in paper and tied at the ends like an old timey piece of candy. But my hungry fingers struggled to untie it cleanly. The untied platano was easier to get to, though no less greasy to unwrap.

Once I got down to eating, I assumed I would prefer the pork filling, but while it was stewed to a decent level of tenderness, its green salsa was mild in comparison to the savory red heat of the chicken. The masa of the banana leaf tamal had more of a yellowish hue and was noticeably more moist than its paler corn husk counterpart.

While the corn husk masa had the more crumbly texture, it’s the hoja de platano version that fell apart more easily, too succulent to hold its shape. Still, between the spicier filling and juicier chew, I give the corn husk the clear edge. It costs 50 cents more, but the bump in quality is worth it.

Neither are the greatest tamales ever, but if you’re passing by and in the mood to feel good about living in a culturally rich part of the country, they hit the spot.

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That's a corn husk tamal with pork in front, and an equally greasy chicken platano in the back.
That's a corn husk tamal with pork in front, and an equally greasy chicken platano in the back.
Place

Tamales el Mexicano

3504 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

One of my favorite parts about living in San Diego is that I can be cruising down a street on just about any day and spot a little cart selling tamales. I noticed Tamales el Mexicano at its regular location, sitting in front of a liquor store next to a car wash on El Cajon Boulevard, just east of the 805. It’s not much to look at beyond the all-caps TAMALES, printed white on red, but that proved enough to lure me in for a mid-afternoon snack.

Despite a simple bilingual menu, it took me a moment to realize the beef and res tamales, listed separately, are the same thing. Same with the chicken (pollo), pork (puerco), and jalapeño with cheese (con queso).

It’s all para llevar from a tamale cart

One distinct offering offered no translation: hoja de platano. That’s a tamal steamed inside of a banana leaf instead of the traditional corn husk. And by traditional, I mean to northern parts of Mexico and most common in California. In the tropical states of Mexico such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Yucatan — where tamales were probably first eaten somewhere between three and five thousand years ago — they prefer banana leaves.

I’ve had each kind before but never tried them together, so I figured this was a good opportunity to compare them, head to head. The platano tamales only come with chicken or pork fillings, so I ordered the chicken, and then a corn husk tamal with pork. I watched as they were plucked steaming out of the cart and dropped into a plastic bag. It’s all para llevar from a tamale cart.

After a short ride home, I unwrapped the tamales. The corn husk tamal had a nicer presentation, wrapped in paper and tied at the ends like an old timey piece of candy. But my hungry fingers struggled to untie it cleanly. The untied platano was easier to get to, though no less greasy to unwrap.

Once I got down to eating, I assumed I would prefer the pork filling, but while it was stewed to a decent level of tenderness, its green salsa was mild in comparison to the savory red heat of the chicken. The masa of the banana leaf tamal had more of a yellowish hue and was noticeably more moist than its paler corn husk counterpart.

While the corn husk masa had the more crumbly texture, it’s the hoja de platano version that fell apart more easily, too succulent to hold its shape. Still, between the spicier filling and juicier chew, I give the corn husk the clear edge. It costs 50 cents more, but the bump in quality is worth it.

Neither are the greatest tamales ever, but if you’re passing by and in the mood to feel good about living in a culturally rich part of the country, they hit the spot.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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