The smart play is to order tamales by the dozen.
  • The smart play is to order tamales by the dozen.
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Prior to writing Feast! stories, I wasn’t someone who frequently took pictures of his food. I figure, being photogenic doesn’t make food worth eating any more than it makes a supermodel interesting. That doesn’t mean I’m not impressionable: put a photo of pretty food in front of me, and my mouth will water. It’s just a question of, what makes food pretty?

Las Cuatro Milpas

1857 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan

Case in point: Las Cuatro Milpas doesn’t make photo-ready food, not by any editorial standards. Take my favorite order of “rice & beans & tamale.” The rice and beans straddle either side of that frequency of light known as beige, while the tamal itself looks a bit like a twinkie sitting in a puddle. But when you put a soupy bowl of the combo in front of anyone who’s tried it — well, you might as well be looking at the Grand Canyon, or Taj Majal. It’s a work of Mexican food majesty, and it costs only five bucks.

Good news: the tamale combo comes with Milpas' flour tortillas.

It’s amusing to imagine someone trying to take this photo when the little Barrio Logan shop opened in 1933. Cameras back then were the size of a lunchbox, and even “compact” models had those long accordion-style fold-out lenses. I suppose in those days, you had to rely upon word of mouth to find out about a good dining option.

Today the mouth rarely has a hand in it. Even as food writer who’s always looking for something new to eat, I often know ahead of time what my order will look like, thanks to excitable early adopters who snap and share their foodie bona fides with the world.

Thanks in part to its longevity, the relative lack of media readiness hasn’t hurt Las Cuatro Milpas one bit. In fact people still make a point of documenting their visits to the 85-year-old counter restaurant. There’s cachet attached. If it’s not outright hip to praise Las Cuatro Milpas, it certainly incurs a public shunning to call it anything less than outstanding.

Every food writer declares it the best at something, eventually, and it’s almost always well deserved. Best flour tortillas on the planet? Absolutely. Best chorizo con huevo in town? Indubitably. Best tacos and rolled tacos? Worthy of debate. Best Mexican restaurant in San Diego? All the aforementioned make a pretty good case.

What I don’t understand is why we don’t single out the tamales more often. They’re stubbier than most, and rounder, and especially dropped into the saucy bean stew, they do not win any beauty pageants. But at least half the joy of Mexican cuisine is closing your eyes to ruminate over that perfect savory bite of succulent masa, slightly gritty yet moist, rich with an almost buttery, nutty, hominy flavor.

The tamales at Las Cuatro Milpas capture this better than anything I’ve eaten this side of the border. They’re filled with red-chili stewed beef, which is delectable, but even if they were just a formless lump of masa alone, they’d still look perfect to me.

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