Jeri and I went to pick up our tamales today at Juanito’s in East L.A. It was chaotic and crowded and busy and I’m sure it will be even worse tomorrow. We had to wait an extra hour for the cheese and green chile tamales. We ordered a Champurrado, a hot thick drink made from masa and Mexican chocolate, and Bunelos, a flat crispy tortilla like desert topped with sugar and cinnamon. Both are very delicious and traditional. While we were waiting some guy came in to pick up his order, several dozen. The manager told him “I’m sorry but we gave your order away”, the guy seemed irritated but he agreed to come back later in the day, after being assured by the manager or owner that his order would be ready. Of course he said okay, the tamales are that good. The confusion is understandable because there was a constant flow of customers and they all wanted their tamales. It was better to humble yourself, bite your tongue and wait, rather than lose out on the tamales. We were there a few weeks earlier on the recommendation of Frank Baltazar Sr. and had already tried the tamales so we knew they were worth waiting for.
On the way home Jeri and I got to talking about all the great tamales we’ve had over the years from places that have either disappeared or changed hands. For years we have gone to Mary’s Mexican Deli on Whittier Blvd in Whittier for menudo and tamales, in fact I went there with my father when I was a young boy. A few years back the owner retired and someone else took over and it is no longer the same. They were at one time on par with Juanito’s but no more.
Another place was Yaqui’s in Santa Fe Springs, great tamales, in fact all their food was good and they made some really good salsa, hot just the way I like it. They too are a thing of the past.
La Pinata’s in Montebello is still in business and I still enjoy their food, especially the tamales. They fall just under Juanito’s and that’s no insult considering how good Juanito’s tamales are. Of course that’s subject to opinion. Their menudo is outstanding as well.
In 2003 Jeri and I were walking out of the market and heading for the truck when some guy standing next to a van said something to me in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish so I looked at Jeri and she said “He selling tamales” “I’m not buying tamales from some guy in a van, let’s go” I said. He said something else to me and Jeri tells me “you can sample a few for free”. “Free?” says I. I looked at the van, a newer model, it was clean, and had the name of the business painted on the side. I looked at the guy, he seemed business like so I said “Free huh?” As it turns out I bought about four dozen tamales from him, red with pork, red with beef, green chile and cheese and whatever else he had. I prayed there wasn’t a Chihuahua in the bunch. These were tamales from Heaven. The corn husk was fresh and not dried. They were different than any tamale I have ever tasted. We got their card. The great thing about it was that they delivered. Couldn’t beat that.
Later that year, when we gave my son Andrew a going away party when he was leaving for the Coast Guard, I ordered a couple of hundred for the party. One day we called and the number was no longer in service. I don’t think I ever got over it. That as they say, was that.
About 1996, Jeri and I and the kids decided we were going to try to make our own tamales, with red chile with pork. We did a respectable job considering it was our first time. We gave some to our neighbors and they swore they were the best tamales they had ever tasted. I don’t know if they were being kind or if they were telling the truth but we thought they were good.
The worst tamales that I have ever had? I used to say to anyone and everyone that ”I never met a tamale I didn’t like”. I can’t say that anymore.
In 2003, Ed Hernandez and I were at work, finishing up our lunch, when some guy that I had never seen before walks up to us and says “Do you guys like tamales?” “Do we like tamales? Do birds fly?” Well“, he says “my son is a professional chef and he makes tamales. I’m taking orders”. He sounded so proud of his son. He gave us a list of the types of tamales his son made. He made them sound so good. I ordered four dozen at 60 bucks. Ed ordered three dozen, one for him and one each for his sons.
They came just before Christmas. I took them home and Jeri steamed them and put them on the plate. There are no words to describe just how horrible these tamales were. I’m still gagging. We threw them all in the trash. There are some things that a professional chef should never touch; a good burger, good fried chicken, burritos of any type and last but not least, tamales! I called Ed to see how his tamales were. He hadn’t tried his yet. I told him about mine. He didn’t sound too happy about it. When I talked to him later, he said he just tossed his tamales after we talked. A few months later the guy came around to see how we liked the tamales. Again, he was so proud of his son, I just didn’t have the heart to tell him. So I lied.
4214 E. Floral Dr
Los Angeles, California