Tamara’s Tamales puts a contemporary spin on a Mexican classic

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

Tamara’s Tamales chef Alice Trapp, who wrote a book on tamales, shows off her banana-leaf and corn-husk creations Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Tamara’s Tamales chef Alice Trapp, who wrote a book on tamales, shows off her banana-leaf and corn-husk creations
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

The modern chef is assumed to be a versatile character, a jack-of-all-trades who moves effortlessly between techniques and tools, roasting, baking and grilling without missing a beat. This is in contrast with a much older tradition of specializing — learning one technique, one element of a cuisine, and doing it spectacularly well.

Japanese films like “Tampopo” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” have made heroes of specialist chefs who fanatically pursue perfection, but it’s the way business is done worldwide. I have visited a restaurant in Germany that has served only one item — grilled bratwurst — for more than 850 years, and thus has had plenty of time to get it right.

On the day that restaurant in Germany opened, the Mayans and Aztecs had been making tamales for thousands of years. Though contemporary methods have made the job a bit easier, it’s still a time-consuming task that is often performed by experts.

Though Westside eateries specializing in tamales are rare, we do have at least one tamaleria of note: Tamara’s Tamales on West Washington Boulevard. The restaurant serves a wide variety of styles, and one of the proprietors here, Alice Tapp, has written two books on the subject.

In the corner of a mini-mall, the location is tiny but cheerfully decorated, and a few tables are available for those who want to eat theirs fresh from the kitchen. There are plenty of tamales to choose from — almost 20 counting the items on the specials board — and the fillings range from vegetables, seafood and pork to sweet tamales with pineapple, raisins and anise. On a recent afternoon I took a pair of friends and we each ordered two so that we could enjoy as much variety as possible.

We ordered red pork chili, king crab, wild mushroom and green corn tamales that each arrived wrapped in cornhusks, plus a chicken mole and a Nicaraguan variant called a nactamal that arrived in banana leaves. The cornhusks are just wrappers to keep the interior from drying out, but the banana leaves impart a slight but appealing grassy flavor. The banana wrappers also keep things more moist, the cornmeal mix inside almost stewed rather than delicately firm. I recommend that you try
at least one of each and savor the difference, keeping in mind that the banana leaf tamales are somewhat larger.

The chicken mole tamale was about what I expected, richly flavored with chocolaty sauce but not excessively hot. In fact none of the tamales I’ve tried here made my mouth burn. The hottest tamales are an invention of Texas, not Mexico, though the Peruvian variant also packs
a chili kick.

The nactamal was more unusual — chicken, rice, tomato, olives, raisins and prunes were all in there, fruity and fragrant. The combination of fruit and chicken reminded me of Moroccan and Spanish flavors and made me want to learn more about Nicaraguan cuisine.

The cornhusk tamales we tried were a bit more conventional. The red pork chili did have occasional bursts of pickled tang thanks to the chopped olives, but it was otherwise
a similar flavor to red chili anywhere else.

The wild mushroom tamale was a masterpiece of simplicity, with musky and rich mushroom and corn, and the green corn was a marvel. Wrapping young corn kernels with cornmeal creates an essence of corn, with a bit of mild green chili adding just enough sharpness to keep the vegetable sweetness from being cloying.

The departure from Mexican tradition was the king crab tamale with tomato-jalapeno sauce, sour cream, cheddar cheese and chives. The coastal peoples surely ate crabs in antiquity, but the ideas here are modern, subtle and wholly successful. The seafood was fragrant and delicate and very well accented by the cream, cheese and slightly smoky tomato.

There are other innovative items on Tamara’s menu, including a chicken, cilantro pesto and jack cheese tamale as well as a dessert tamale made like a brownie, which whetted my appetite to return for more experimenting.

Though Westside tamale prices are higher than in East L.A., they’re still moderate — lunch for three with nonalcoholic beverages ran $41. That’s a reasonable fee for tamales made by masters of the craft, led by someone who wrote a book on the subject (it’s on sale by the register).

If you want to follow the Mexican tradition of making tamales at Christmas, you can follow the recipe and then come back to Tamara’s to see if yours taste as good as hers. I’m much more likely to avoid all the work and just get them here, a place where the ancient tradition is in good hands.

Vegetarian and vegan options available. Menu online.

Tamara’s Tamales 13352 W. Washington Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 305-7714