Old Town Oakland - La Borinquena Mex-icatessen – New Mexican chicos, New Mexican roasted green chile & tamales
La Borinquena is known for their tamales and tortillas.
I can’t describe the place any better or with more humor than the part owner ... repeat ... lard is our friend ... she wrote ..
“We have a full quick service steam table with cafeteria style service for take out or eat in. We have a specialty shop where my Mom will give recipes as well as tidbits of Oakland history since this has been her 'hood since 1931! Fresh corn tortillas, dried chiles, exotic spices (epazote, achiote, etc.) canned Latin groceries are all right here. But, what is our specialty? TAMALES of course! Lean shredded pork, mild chile based sauce stuffed in our fresh corn masa ground in house and yes, boys and girls, we still use LARD. Repeat after me...LARD is our friend!”
There are few tables in the center of the restaurant, a small case for the house-made pan dulce at the back and a small market along the other wall.
The market is not large, but noteworthy for having a few unusual items and dried peppers. The peppers, whole and ground, are all packaged. That’s where I saw the little package of dried corn called chicos which are supposed to have a smoky taste and swell up like the hominy in pozole.
Next time I’m picking up the package of ground green chile. I settled on a package of chipotle chili flakes, how good is that?
There were also a few other brands of Mexican hot chocolate that I haven’t seen before. And I finally learned the name of the paper cut-outs that hang from Mexican restaurants and are used for celebrations. They are called papel picado and they are sold at La Borinquena.
Sometimes I wish I’d read more about places on Chowhound BEFORE visiting. Looking at old posts after, I learned there is a small museum on one corner (it must be really tiny or no longer there). Also there was a mention of chorizo and only after reading the post do I notice the menu mentions chorizo scrambled with eggs (allow 15 minutes). There you go if looking for another idea for breakfast near Jack London Square or Old Town Oakland.
They make some of the best standard corn tortillas in the Bay Area. There are two brands I like better, but both are thicker and have unique characteristics making them unsuitable for some purposes. La Borinquena’s tortillas are a good all-around tortilla. A package of a dozen hot tortillas is 65 cents. There was the fragrant smell of green corn husks to these tortillas. Ingredients corn, water & lime. Another poster wrote ...
“... they are usually still warm when you pick them up. They are a little larger than the norm and have wonderful flavor ... And the tortilla chips and tostada shells they make from those tortillas are toe-curling good!”
The thick industrial-strength chips that sort of taste like corn nuts with a little lard that coats the mouth. They are addictive.
On the counter at the restaurant, there were small two ounce packets ($1.29) of New Mexican roasted green chile. I thought I’d use it as salsa for my chips ... NOT. This stuff is really HOT!!!
Ruth did a report a few years ago, and I couldn’t describe the tamales any better than she did ...
“The aroma from the yellow masa that wafted up as I unwrapped it was almost dizzying. Since it was too hot, plump and heavy to hold while I was driving, I picked at the masa layer and realized that even if there weren't any filling I would be happy with this tamale. I finally got to the filling -- a generous portion of lightly seasoned finely chopped pork. While not spicy, the meat had the rich flavor of pork that has been roasted rather than boiled or stewed, as I've found more commonly in tamales”
I’m sorry though that I ordered them with gravy. I always heard of gravy so I wanted to see what it was ... that red enchilada sauce. They also throw a handfull of shredded American cheese on top.
So I couldn’t apreciate the taste of the actual tamale. It is not a spicy tamale and I wish I could have tasted some of the masa more that was disguised by the sauce. Even with the sauce, the masa taste surfaced. It was interesting and I would have liked to enjoy it unadorned.
Someone said there was Nieman Ranch Pork in the tamales, but given the $1.59 price, I would be skeptical. The restaurant sells pork tamales, but with two hour advance notice you can order the following (1/2 dozen minimum):
- Chicken with vegetables and olives
- Veggie. No lard in these. Mixed vegetables, Moneterey Jack cheese and chile relleno sauce
- Green chile and cheese – Mild green chile with Monterey jack cheese
There have been mentions on the board of sweet tamales here, but I don’t see any evidence on the menu. Maybe during Christmas. This place is the to-go place at that time of year and orders for Christmas tamales have to be placed during the first two weeks of December.
With a one day advance order you can get:
- Sencilla – Plain for tortilla or tamale
- Batida – Mixed for tamales
Nix-tamal-par-boiled corn for menudo or posole
One of the really great things about this shop is the accessibilty to non-Latinos. I never knew some of these terms like batida. They will help you gather what is needed for Mexican dishes and explain how to make it. There was even a mention on the web of someone calling them WHILE making tamales for help and they cheerfully answered.
There are also a few chile-related knick-knacks. There were also cute little mini-pinatas.
The menu is standard from the steam table items ... burritos, tacos (hard or soft shell), tostadas, chile rellenos, huevos rancheros, nachos, quesadillas and taco salad. Meats include ground beef, chicken picadillo, chile colorado, chile verde, carne asada (mon-fri only) and carnitas (fri & sat only). There was a positive Chowhound mention of the Chile Colorado. A chowhound said of the nachos ...
“La Borinquena in Oakland makes really, really good liquid cheese nachos. Not in anyway authentic but sometimes they just hit the spot.”
The food seems like old-style Mexican-American. Daily specials include green chicken enchiladas (mon-wed), chicken tamales (thurs), carnitas & menudo (fri & sat). Aqua frescas include limon, horchata and jamaica. The jamaica was ok, not too sweet but could have had a little stronger hibiscus flavor. All items on the regular menu are available for catering which also has a tamale cassarole.
It seems the name means "the Puerto Rican" I’ll have to ask about that next time.
La Borinquena Mex-icatessen
582 7th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Closed Sunday and Monday
Tue-Thu 9:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Fri-Sat 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
East Bay Express mention
Previous Chowhound mentions:
Chile Colorado burritos
Now here’s where I should have read up on this restaurant before going. It seems there was another tamale store around the corner. Anyone know if it is still there?
"Tamaleria a Michoacana"
704 Jefferson St.((510) 452-0544) -just around the corner from La Borinquena. There really isn't a sign out in front, other than a cardboard sign advertising tamales at $10.00/dozen. You walk down a few stairs and you will see the Open sign - just ring the bell. The tamales are $10.00 a dozen - they only make pork. They are quite good - are they better than La Borinquena - ????? - maybe LB has a little more filling. Both are very good
I went to La Michoacana 8am-2pm to get tamales (510-452-0544, 704 Jefferson, Oakland). Its a wholesale/retail place in the basement of a house just around the corner from La Borinqueña La Michoacana only makes pork tamales. They're pretty good. Their filling is a ground pork mixture, instead of pulled pork like La Borinqueña. I was worried the filling would be too fatty, but it wasn't. Their masa is very dense and filling (I can only eat one) but good.
re: Robert Lauriston
Thanks for that link. I never read it. Great history. I love that it is one of the few businesses that continues to be passed down through the generations. Usually by the third generation, the kids don't want to be involved.
Christina seems really into it. I think it was her at the store the day I went. Really nice. She didn't know what the chicos were and chased around the shop asking if anyone knew. Then she looked it up on the web.
Very cool vibe at the place. I'll probably be stopping by when I go to the Old Oakland farmers market on Fridays. That visit to Breads of India resulted in something usefull after all.
I love to go to this store. . .the family that owns it is lovely, especially the mom who makes guest appearances here and there. . .it's also nice to see her daughters and grandchildren all working together - they are a beautiful family.
They sell chicharrones by the pound . . .they are crispy . .deadly but delicious and really wonderful ground up and used in frijoles borrachos. . .
LARD is their friend and so that makes me theirs. .. the only complaint I have is that when they make the nachos, they don't use their wonderful, thick chips. . .they use a bag o' chips that looks like one of those bags from costco. While the nachos are made with nacho sauce. . they do truly hit the spot sometimes . . with the meats, salsa, sour cream and guac. . .not pretty but delicious. . I just wish they'd use their fabulous chips.
In one of the linked posts, what one poster wrote ...
"They have nachos that are so goopy, gloppy fabulous but they don't use their housemade chips for them - they giggle at me when I go to one side of the store for the chips and then bring them to the taqueria side and tell them to make my nachos with the better chips - perhaps a mite eccentric, but I know what I like! :-) "
So there you go ... a solution.
Regarding La Michoacana: About 15 years ago, the family gave me a "tour" of their facility - I think it is a converted garage. They showed me how they par-boil the pork first to get rid of the extra fat. What struck me most about the place is that it was so clean you could eat from the floor.
Just a note that La Borinquena has added sweet tamales to the menu that are available on Saturday (3 to a bag for a little over $3).
These are plump, very sweet and lardy tamales with crushed pineapple, cinnamon, raisins, sugar and a bit of food coloring so they are a pretty pink. In other words they are tasty.
They are also available by special order (2 hour notice). Minimum quantity for a special order is 1/2 dozen.
They also now sell generous bags of their thick corn chips that are full of corn flavor and satisfyingly lardy for 99 cents in the restaurant.
Hours have exapnded a bit ... Monday through Thursday 9:30am to 7:00pm, Friday & Saturday 9am to 7:00pm, Closed Sunday
And ... having done extensive tortilla testing over the past year, I have to say that no one comes close to La Borinquena tortilla-wise. They are hands down the best tortillas I've had in the Bay Area.
La Borinquena Mex-Icatessen
582 7th St, Oakland, CA 94607