Tamales at Christmastime is a tradition that unites different cultures across Los Angeles, taking a starring role at holiday tables alongside other classic food and drink customs such as gingerbread, eggnog, ham, candy canes, chestnuts, Christmas cookies and hot apple cider.
Consider yourself fortunate if you know someone who makes these finely wrapped (in corn husks or banana leaves) masa corn bundles filled with savory or sweet fillings.
If not, there are restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores and farmers’ market vendors with tameleras who handcraft thousands for the holidays. Most are in East L.A. with a sprinkling in the Valley and Westside.
Your best bet to score tamales at the smaller "mom and pop" locations is to order in advance, unless you want to wait in line and watch the sunrise—in which case, you’re sure to make a few new friends.
Here are 12 places in L.A. County to check out for your holiday tamales.
Located at the Mercado La Paloma (3655 S Grand Ave #C6, Los Angeles 90007, 213.741.1075) - a community gathering place near USC that's home to an ethnic food court, colorful shops, and a non-profit - Chichen Itza features Yucatan cuisine from award-winning chef/owner Gilberto Cetina, who is known for his cochinita pibil (achiote-marinated and shredded pork). Order at the counter or plan ahead for a party with the full catering menu that includes individual meals as well as a large selection of trays with the not-to-be-missed, banana leaf wrapped Vaporcito tamales with a choice of chicken, pork, or veggie ($65 for 25). You may want to make another stop a few stands down at Holbox, also owned by Chef Centina, for exceptional Mexican seafood specialties like stand-out ceviche, uni, and whole grilled fish.
Founded by Chef Pascal Dropsy in 1994, Corn Maiden serves and sells nearly 30 varieties of lard-free, handmade tamales with no preservatives at farmers markets across L.A. County—from Pacific Palisades to Pasadena, as well as Trader Joe’s, Gelson’s, and Costco. Traditional ingredients combine with the more exotic, such as smoked Gouda, wild mushrooms, spaghetti squash, and red port wine. Dessert tamales include one with Belgian chocolate, raspberries and caramelized walnuts. Tamales wrapped in cornhusks are available in two sizes, run $19 to $28.50 a dozen, and can be kept for six months in the freezer. For a list of products and farmers market locations, or to place an order, visit cornmaidenfoods.com.
Located in Koreatown, the James Beard Award-winning Guelaguetza (3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles 90006, 213.427.0608) is one of the most celebrated Oaxacan restaurants in the country. Owned by the Lopez family since 1994, Guelaguetza is a full-scale eatery with an adjoining boutique and event facility.
Their specialty shredded chicken tamale is covered with a rich mole negro sauce made with nearly 30 ingredients - including Mexican chocolate and cinnamon - and wrapped in shiny green banana leaves.
A catering tray of these authentic tamales comes with rice and beans and serves 8-10 ($40). Order at least 48 hours in advance.
La Flor de Yucatan
For more than 40 years, this family-owned full-service bakery, caterer and specialty shop in the Pico-Union district has served up some of the best Mayan cuisine in L.A. La Flor de Yucatan (1800 S Hoover St, Los Angeles 90006, 213.748.6090) specializes in two types of tamales, both wrapped in banana leaves and filled with chicken and pork. The Tamal de Especie (Colado), known as tamale royalty, is fluffy and delicate ($22 for a dozen). The Vaporcitos Tortiado, a flatter, denser tamale, is topped with a tangy tomato sauce and priced at $27 per dozen.
Be sure to check out the deli case, bakery display, and imported goods for additions to your meal. Don’t leave before trying the hojaldra con jamon y queso (ham and cheese in a puffed pastry).
La Indiana Tamales
The Ramos family has been making tamales from scratch for nearly 40 years from a family recipe handed down through generations. La Indiana Tamales (1142 S. Indiana St., Los Angeles 90023, 323.262.4682) makes holiday ordering easy with a few clicks on their website. Traditional tamales include red chile pork, red chile beef, green chile and cheese, chicken and vegetable, and elote (sweet corn). Purchase by the half-dozen ($9.60) or dozen ($18.48). If you’re ambitious, try making your own—cornhusks and masa are sold by the pound!
La Mascota Bakery
Located in Boyle Heights, La Mascota Bakery (2715 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles 90023, 323.263.5513) opened in 1952 and remained practically unchanged until a couple of years ago, when new owners Francisco and Patty Aparicio gave the space a facelift. Not to worry, the baked goods are better than ever and the tamales are prepared with the same recipe that made them famous. Five flavors—pork, chicken, beef, cheese, and pineapple, wrapped in cornhusks—are available for $24 a dozen. You’d be remiss to leave before snagging a sweet pan dulce and a mint agave latte. And don’t forget to check out the spectacular 3-D flower globes made from gelatin. After all, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.
Los Cinco Puntos
Opened in 1967 and set on the western edge of Boyle Heights (3300 East Cesar E Chavez Ave., Los Angeles 90063, 323.261.4084), this grocery/butcher/sidewalk eatery is a Los Angeles institution. Tamale options at Los Cinco Puntos include pork, chicken, cheese with chile verde, and a sweet variety—all freshly pulled from large steaming metal containers for $18.49 a dozen (including tax). Grab a carne asada taco or two wrapped in warm, freshly made tortillas, take a walk around, and peruse the shelves and barrels filled with spices, as well as household goods.
Loteria Grill Hollywood
Sadly the first Loteria Grill location in The Original Farmers Market at Third & Fairfax recently closed after 16 years, but executive chef Jimmy Shaw is still serving up his award-winning regional Mexican specialties at Loteria Grill Hollywood (6627 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles 90028, (323) 465-2500).
This year’s holiday menu includes four varieties of tamales wrapped in banana leaves: chile poblano and jack cheese in salsa tomatillo; chicken in mole poblano; pork carnitas in spicy chile morita, and a sweet pineapple. Prices range from $4-$4.50 for a large tamale, $24-$26 half-dozen, and $48-$52 for a dozen. Each order comes with crema Mexicana, salsa, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. Add side dishes such as pozole and chile rellenos, plus their famous flan for dessert, and you’ll have a feast!
For the full holiday menu, visit store.loteriagrill.com/special-holiday-dishes. The menu is available for ordering 48 hours in advance. (closed Christmas Day) Pro tip: use the promo code "LosHolidays" for $5 off on orders of $48 or more.
Me Gusta Gourmet Tamales
The Ortega family started Me Gusta Gourmet Tamales as a mom and pop restaurant in the city of San Fernando, but quickly grew to a large manufacturing business—perhaps due to winning top honors at both the Los Angeles and Indio Tamale Festivals a few years back. San Fernando Valley dwellers can get their tamale fix at the kiosk situated in front of the 10,000 square-foot factory in Pacoima (13752 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima 91331, 818.897.8081). Their traditional tamales are still handmade with an original lard-free recipe from Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. Flavors include beef, pork, corn, chicken, chile, cheese and pineapple. Prices vary depending upon if you purchase hot or cold: $2-$2.46 each, $12-$14.17 (half-dozen), and $27.38 (dozen), including tax.
Alberto Meija began selling tamales as a street vendor in the mid-60s before opening his small restaurant with a half-dozen tables in Echo Park (1644 W Temple St., Los Angeles 90026
The tamales are handmade from original family recipes: chicken with salsa verde (green sauce), pork with salsa roja (red sauce), cheese and jalapeño, and chicken mole. For non-meat eaters, there’s spinach/cheese and tofu/chipotle.
Sweet tamales include strawberry and pineapple. Prices range from $16-$18 a dozen or $1.45-$1.60 each. If you have time, sit down for blue corn tortilla chilaquiles and a cup of authentic café de olla (coffee with cinnamon and sugar).
This family-owned business started in North Hills in 2005 and opened a second location in Reseda in 2017. Tamales are the star at Tamales House (7622 Reseda Blvd, Reseda, (818) 567-6100
15404 Nordhoff St., North Hills, (818) 894-9231) and come in savory and sweet varieties, including chicken, beef, pork, ‘rajas con queso’ (jalapenos and jack cheese), spinach and cheese, sweet corn, strawberry and cream cheese, pineapple, and cinnamon and raisin. Owner Juan Gonzalez says his tamales contain no GMO, no lard, are not frozen and are gluten-free. If you’re going to eat-in, they even serve a breakfast tamale plate.
Quite an eclectic variety of tamales can be found at Tamara's Tamales (13352 Washington Blvd, Marina Plaza, Los Angeles 90066, 310.305.7714), a strip mall eatery near Marina del Rey. Owners Alice and Tamara started their business over two decades ago, but originally learned their trade growing up in East L.A. kitchens. With over 30 flavors on the menu, there’s something for everyone, including variations of chicken, beef, vegetarian, seafood, cheese, sweet, and even vegan—all with a gourmet L.A. twist. At $3-$6 each and $52-$109 per dozen (seafood), these tamales are definitely the priciest in town—and also among the most unique.