You can bury your hands deep in a vat of messy masa this holiday season, or take the more direct route to your favorite Orange County tortilleria. In either case, tamales likely will figure into your family’s festivities. They’re a universal, multicultural phenomenon. Here are some of our local favorites.
At Chicama, the tamale takes a Peruvian twist. The mannerly family owners make only one variety: an oversized tamale packed with pulled chicken, diced vegetables, hardboiled egg, and black olives. The masa is tender and flecked with shards of corn. And the acidic addition of black olives works a kind of briny brilliance. Along with the salsa criolla (a tangle of red onion sluiced with lime juice and infused with cilantro), the olives help cut through the masa’s richness.
Garden Grove’s Sak Donuts is a quintessential Southern California story: a Cambodian family takes over a doughnut shop, learns the tamale trade from an employee, and eventually adds them to the menu of crullers and coffee. Who knew they’d be some of the best around. The masa is like velvety corn pudding, and the fillings are precisely spiced and perfectly portioned: red and green chicken, plus cheesy rajas con queso. Swaddled in banana leaves, they’re kept in steamers behind the counter, which customers eye on arrival, hoping they’re not sold out.
Sariñana’s Tamale Factory is as classic as you’ll find in O.C. A local institution for nearly 80 years, the restaurant makes the kind of tamales you grew up with: neat little logs of masa filled with spicy stewed pork or chicken that’s colored tomatillo green. These are some of Southern California’s most archetypal tamales, enduring and unchanged for decades. And they’re just as good as ever.
Refresher Course: Chicama’s ceviche mixto is the ideal chaser after a tamale or two. It’s a citrus-kissed riot of textures and flavors, with fish, shrimp, and squid bolstered by hunks of creamy sweet potato, and both boiled and toasted Peruvian corn. An instant refresher.
6959 Cerritos Ave.
13016 Harbor Blvd. Garden Grove
SariÑana’s Tamale Factory
2218 W. Fifth St.