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Dec 12, 2005 02:12 AM

East Bay Tamale Crawl – Tacubaya to Pup Hut

  • r

Tis the season for tamales, fa la la la la la la la la

Hopefully posters will share their favorites on this side of the bay.

My own personal tamale crawl spanned a few weeks and started by accident. Before I knew it I was hooked and soon was thumbing through Tamales 101 (see link below) to gain a better understanding of the tamale. Who knew there were more than a dozen ways to fold a tamale and it was called by so many names in different countries. More detail in the cookbook link.

The book was bought at the end o’ the crawl, so styles of wrapping were not noted, only if wrapping (if any) was corn husk or banana leaf. This started with chicken tamale from Café Euro, so for comparison, if chicken was available, chicken was ordered. Did not notice until well into the crawl that, like carnitas, many places only make tamales on the weekends. That is noted if it is known.

The following tamales were sampled;

CAFÉ EURO – 23 rd Street, Berkeley
CASA LATINO – San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
EL TAZAMEL - San Pablo Avenue, San Pablo
FONDA – Solano Avenue, Albany
HACIENDA - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
MI TIERRA FOODS – San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
PUP HUT - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
TACUBAYA – 4 th Street, Berkeley
TRES HERMANAS - San Pablo Avenue, Richmond
VALLEY PRODUCE - San Pablo Avenue, Pinole

Listing is approximately in order of favorite to least favorite. The tamales at the top I really liked, the ones at the bottom ... well ...

TACUBAYA – Tamal de Veduras - $3.95 – large – kabocha squash, white bean and roasted poblanos steamed in banana leaves with salsa roja, crema & cilantro (daily)

So untraditional, so delicious. Served unwrapped on the banana leaf topped with salsa and drizzled with cream, it was a spicy complex wonder. This really was what propelled the tamale crawl full force. The light, fluffy, fresh masa is amazing with the sweetest corn taste. Vegetarian. No lard involved.

CAFÉ EURO – Chicken - $1.25 – small – wrapped in corn husk (daily – may be seasonal)

Wonderful moist masa with the most deeply flavored pieces of chicken stewed in a spicy red sauce. One of the best. The shop also specializes in Mexican beverages. The only place to give me a answer when I asked which was the best tamale. “Chicken”, she said smiling. Excellent pick.

CASA LATINO - $1.95 – Chicken Verde - medium - wrapped in corn husks (daily)

Healthy version using organic chicken breast and olive oil rather than lard, and yet it was very tasty ... even though it was kept in the cooler and heated in the microwave. Masa has fresh diced green pepper in it. No really, this works. Comes with salsa and crema. The quality ingredients show.

TACUBAYA – Pork Tamal - $3.95 – large - shredded pork and mole negro – wrapped in corn husk (daily)

No lard involved. Organic pork. There is a denser more traditional masa for this tamale and the sweet tamale ... not the light masa used for the vegetable tamale. The lean pork filling could have had more flavor, the masa wasn’t as moist as I prefer, but what elevates this is the spicy mole with the chocolate a pronounced flavor.

TRES HERMANAS – Pork - $1.50 – medium large– wrapped in corn husks (weekends or special order)

No chicken on the day I visited. Cubes of tender pork in a tomato sauce with only a suggestion of spice and a moist masa. I had a certain ‘eau de pork’ about me for a while after this tamale. About a year ago, I was betting this place would be out of business because it had so few customers. People found it and it has quite a bit of business. Don’t mess with the head Hermana. She let me know she was doing me a favor selling a single tamale. They are only sold by the half dozen, dozen or part of a tamale plate. Big sign in the window that says “place Christmas tamale orders early”. Glancing at the tables, the same chips and salsa were served, not the strong point of the place ... skip them. Nice soups and HUGE burritos. Two days required for special order tamales.

VALLEY PRODUCE – chicken - $1.39 – medium – wrapped in corn husks (weekends only)

Generous, medium tingly-spicy chicken with nice poultry flavor in moist masa.

MI TIERRA FOODS – chicken - $1.25 – small – wrapped in corn husks

Mildly spicy minced chicken filling with a sour nopale-like tang. The best thing about this place is the extras - three types of salsa, pickled peppers/carrots and green peppers with charred skins. The best ... THE BEST ... Jamaica aqua fresca in the Bay Area … almost black, the color of dried Jamaica, not sweet with the truest flavor. Worth a stop just for this drink. They also carry my beloved tacos by Taqueria de Margurey (look for the gold label). Also they sell a bottled non carbonated soda I haven’t seen much called Chapparitas which is very popular in some areas of Mexico.

TACUBAYA – Tamal Dulce – $3.50 – large - sweet tamale with raisins and pecans (daily)

Lard is not involved. The raisins were delicious and plump. There was a nice caramel syrup drizzled on it, but it would not be something I’d order again.

FONDA – chicken - $6.00 – small – not wrapped (daily)

While it was nicely done and mildly spicy, not only was it forgettable, but ... come on ... SIX DOLLARS ... no, no, no. The price places this near the bottom and really it wasn’t intriguing enough that I’d order it at a lower price.

EL TAZAMEL – Chicken - $2.11 – large – wrapped in banana leaves - Moist El Salvadorian style tamale with pieces of chicken and small green olives with pits

While El Tazamel has the best pupusa in the Bay Area, the tamal was disappointing. The masa was extremely moist but bland. No spice to the filling and the masa overwhelmed the chicken inside. Almost cost me a filling when I bit down on that olive pit. I’ve had great versions of El Salvadorian tamales which I prefer to the Mexican variety. This was only just fine. Based on the pupusa, greatness was expected.

PUP HUT – chicken - $1.50 – small – wrapped in corn husks (daily)

Nice spicy filling, but the masa had dry spots and there was a burnt spot. Ordered this just before closing, so they might have been in the pot too long.

HACIENDA – beef - $4.99 – small – no wrapping (daily)

These only come as part of a lunch plate with two tamales. The lunch is generous with chips, two bowls of salsa, soup or salad, refried beans and delicious rice. The tamales were not great. The masa was on the dryish side and the shredded beef filling had no spice.

While there were different wrapping styles for these tamales, none had any true craftsmanship with nice corn husk ties. I’m going to spend the next month eating oatmeal for breakfast and salmon for dinner with a glass of red wine in the hopes of clearing out my arteries.


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  1. I'm not sure if you've tried the one at the Berkeley Farmer's Market at the Flacos stand. They raised their prices recently, but they're my friend's favorite. They're vegan & have shredded "meat" & an olive & drizzled w/ this green creamy "salsa" sauce. Yummy.

    1 Reply
    1. re: con

      Haven't tried those, only the ones on the list. Thanks for the hint.

    2. Thank you for the wonderful report, rworange. I like Salvadorn tamales a little bit better than the Mexican versions. Kaliente in El Sobrante makes a killer Salvadorn tamale. I believe there are two locations for Kaliente. The one I've tried is on San Pablo Dam Road more or less across the street (about five store fronts down heading away from Orinda)from Tandoori USA.


      1 Reply
      1. re: Cecelia

        If Kaliente wasn't closed today, I would have given them a try.

        A few things I forgot to mention about Mi Tierra Foods, they have a sign advertising Guadalajara dishes.

        They have totas ahogadas (drunken sandwiches). Since I first tried these at the departed and lamented Red's in Richmond, I've seen at least a half dozen restaurants in the area that serve this. It seem there are quite a few people from Guadalajara in the Bay Area.

        Also, after learning about this at Red's, they make the tortas in the Gudalajaran style and they are monsters that complete with NY deli sandwiches in terms of height. There was at least six inches of ingrediants in the sample in the case.

        Also, a correction, they sell the TORTILLAS not TACOS of Taqueria el Maguey (link below). This place turned out to be wholesale only and they start the tortillas with actual corn on the cob, dried corn, I think. Talk about made from scratch. Taqueria el Maguey makes tamales too, but didn't see any in the store.

        I'm a little ambivalent about Mi Tierra Foods. It was my first time there and for some reason didn't really warm up to it despite finding a lot of nice things. May be one of those places to visit a few times and uncover treasures.

        Maybe it is the upscale slant, breads by Bread workshop, although they did have a nice Latino bread I've never seen before, sort of like a Pugulese (sp). And they had a bin of torta rolls. It was the fish/meat dept that looked a little tired. The cheeses selection was nice and they even had queso cheddar.


      2. r
        Robert Lauriston

        Cafe Euro's in Richmond, right?

        You should try nacatamales, the Nicaraguan version. Mint and raisins, if I remember right.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Yep, Cafe Euro is in Richmond on 23rd street, sort of in the vicinity of PortuMex.

          Do you know anyplace that makes a nice nacatamale? That mint / raisin combo sounds good. The cookbook that I have (bought at Tacubaya) has raisins and prunes in it with a lot of other good sounding ingrediants. Sounds like it is worth a try.

          1. re: rworange
            Robert Lauriston

            Most of the nacatamales I've tried were homemade. I think I had one years ago at La Nicaragua on Mission St. in SF.

        2. Hmmm, there's the grocery store a few blocks north from Pup Hut that usually has them in a warmer near the cash register. I get them for my wife as a snack when I go for other grocery related items. I don't do well with names, but I believe it has the word Rincon in it somewheres. This is NOT the grocery store at the corner of McBryde and SP Avenue, just south of that a half block.

          Or you could live in my neighborhood where people in shopping carts sell them door to door !!! 10 bux a dozen and the last batch was the best. I'm trying to convince them to stop using vegetable shortnin' and go back to lard. Lard equals love.


          2 Replies
          1. re: Dr. Biggles

            You're on the right track ... it's called Rincon Latino.

            1. re: Gordon Wing

              YES !!! That's it.

              Wish they had a larger parking lot. It can get tough around there in the late afternoon.


          2. All this Tamale talk recently got me going. So tonight I slow roasted two huge pork shoulders, drained the rendered lard for the Masa, and cut up a bunch of Red Fresnos, Green Pasillas, Tomatillas, Onions and cilantro. Soaking the cornhusks now and will correct the seasonings in a bit. Then I will recruit the rest of the family for assembly. MMMmmmm good. Thanks Chowhounds.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Swarthog

              You forgot to give us your address and phone number.

              1. re: rworange

                Just follow the smell of our holiday baking/candy making. Baklava and rocky road (using TJ's Belgian Chocolate) last night, today pignoli cookies and biscotti. Also as previously mentioned if you can find All Star Tamales, you'd only be a few doors from my house ;)

                1. re: Swarthog

                  What recipe are you using for Pignolis? I've tried a couple and I'm not satisfied...


                  1. re: Larry

                    Hi Larry,

                    We have a board that's perfect for your question. Please start a new thread about pignolis on the Home Cooking board, as recipes are off topic on our regional boards.