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Apr 28, 2009 09:12 PM

Oakland: Unicos de Cuernavaca Tamal Shop - the best tamales in the Bay Area

This was an apartment in a residential neighborhood that has been converted into a tamal shop. In the front room where you place your order at the counter, the table is piled high with corn husks. The back room has the stoves with huge tamale pots.

They sell tamales and only tamales. No sit down. Place an order at the counter and they go back and pull the tamales from the pots.

There are five types: Beef, pork, chicken, cheese, sweet (pineapple)

The are moist, flavorful and HUGE ... about the size of a burrito. The tender pork was in a medium spicy red sauce.

The pineapple were excellent, the tamal mixed with brown sugar.

One tamale is $2.25, but the price decreases as the order increases.

I've had one too many mediocre street tamales and am burnt out on them. However, when you see a place with huge banners proclaiming "The best tamales in the Bay Area. Home-made fresh daily" ... well, what are you going to do but break for tamales?

They re-heat beautifully but for optimal enjoyment, have one right out of the pot. Sit in your car or a bench and experience greatness.

I had other lunch plans, but tried a bit of both when I walked out of the store. So, so good. An audible 'wow' escaped from my lips. They just might be the best Mexican tamales in the Bay Area. I can't recall any better.

I've read that for over 15 years the owner has been selling tamales wholesale to cafes and restaurants.

Unicos de Cuernavaca
3831 International Blvd, Oakland, CA

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  1. I absolutely agree. Go early to have the best selection as some days I have gone later and been left with only sweet tamales to choose from.

    I like the queso/rajas and the chicken. They do special orders and I lucked into an extra chicken in salsa tomatillo that was out of this world. I hope they make it a regular item someday because it was by far my favorite.

    2 Replies
    1. re: pastryqueen

      Can you tell me about the special orders? The ladies there today didn't speak enough English. Do they have a list of other varieties?

      1. re: rworange

        I think they do special sauces/fillings for some of their wholesale clients. I was talking to the owner (I think his name is Sergio?) and I was asking him about the cheese in the tamales and telling him how much I like green salsa when he gave me the special chicken one. . I think it was from a wholesale order. I didn't question. . I just ate. :)

        Next time I go in, which after reading your post that made me crave them so, will be soon, I will get more intel.

    2. Thank you! Thank you! for posting about this place ....... very good pork tamale. Just finished one for lunch - definitely one of the better tamales I've tasted. Tender, well seasoned masa - a bit creamy - with a tasty pork filling. and as you said - large sized - about 7 inches long and generously filled. Pretty filling ...... $2.25 each. I did see the sheet for prices but didn't notice when the price breaks were - I bought three and they were $6.75. However I did ask about the chile verde/tomatillo filled ones - he took my name and phone number and said he'd call me within the next few weeks to alert me when he'd have those again. I'm looking forward to going back. Good find!

      1 Reply
      1. re: gordon wing

        Cool. Hope you post to alert us when he makes them. .

      2. This post makes me so sad. Why do people have to super-size everything? I don't want a tamale that's an entire meals worth of calorie. I want a tamale the size that they make them in Mexico.

        18 Replies
        1. re: larochelle

          I've had large tamales in Mexico City when they were meant as lunch dishes and not a street snack. They are not promoting 'super-size' tamales. It is just the way that the guy has been making them for the past 15 years.

          1. re: rworange

            i picked up two dozen for family meal at work today. When i walked in, Sergio, who's business card says he's the manager, and his co-worker were having lunch. Guess what they were eating? Tamales, of course! :) They were eating them with thick crema and some salsa tomatillo. . next to them on the work table was a huge pot of salsa rojo and a huge box of corn husks ready to go to make some more.

            When I asked what flavors were available, he said everything. .this was at around 11:30am. He asked me to call ahead next time if I was going to order that many again so he could be prepared - he asked for an hours notice so he could have more steaming so he wouldn't run out and "upset his other customers." I got half a dozen each of beef, chicken, pork and queso con rajas. Yes, the tamales are large but not oversized - in fact, they are along the lines of the ones I grew up eating. . I have always been disappointed by the size of other ones as they are so small you don't get that fluffy, creamy masa effect.

            Tough crowd eating these today. . chef, sous chef, three prep cooks, other restaurant staff. . . everyone was blown away by how good they were.

            I am still standing by my vote of queso con rajas but with a disclaimer. . .I really, really like masa. . and these are so all about the masa. The queso panela gets sort of tight and chewy when it's steamed and the rajas add just the right amount of flavor and heat to the tamal. . .but if you're not a fan of lots of fluffy, light masa - this is not the tamale for you. But I absolutely love them.

            As Gordon said, the verde ones are only available when a large wholesale order comes in. . .he said the one I got was just an extra that day. lucky me! :)

            1. re: pastryqueen

              I finally got the cheese tamal today. As you said, this is so about the masa which is wonderful. I lucked out and stopped by just as they were putting them in the pots and had to come back later. I took a few bites of the just-made, out-of-the-pot tamal. Wow. That masa was almost whipped it was so light and it almost had a nuttiness to it. The cheese is nice and bubbly at that time too.

              Turns out they have more than tamals

              Oakland: Unicos de Cuernavaca - more than tamales ... Ridiculous $4 carne asada tortas ... estillo D.F. authentico

              Ridiculous in that with all the labor that went into that torta, the price was bargain-basement.

              They might also make veggie tamales. Having learned the tortas and tacos are available Sunday and Monday, I was watching a huge pile of carrots and potatoes being chopped. I asked what they were for and told veggie tamals. I thnk they will be available Tuesday.

            2. re: rworange

              Interesting, I've eaten a lot of tamales in Mexico City, as far back as when I was studying there in 1980, and never encountered a tamale that I would describe as "burrito-sized" and the lunch plate ones I've had tended to be smaller so you have several different kinds.

              When you say they were the size of a "burrito" - do you mean a Mission burrito? How much bigger is it than Tamale Queen's tamales? (She's just one example of what I consider a "standard" size tamale in Calfornia.)

              It would be interesting to find out where this style originated and where its prevelant.

              1. re: larochelle

                As Gordon mentioned about 7 inches long ... actually about the size of a small cob of corn. Not a mega Mission burriton but an average-size, hold the guac, sour cream, lettuce etc. just burrito and meat/beans size burrito.

                1. re: larochelle

                  About seven inches long and two inches across. Now I'm blushing.

                  1. re: lexdevil

                    exactly - about 7x2. . . you'd really be able to make a meal of just one. . .where as I could probably eat two of the smaller ones (or three on a day I am extra hungry).

                    My abuelita was from Guadalajara and the way they made them were the kind that were tied on both ends as opposed to folded over as these ones are. The tamales I grew up one were thick and plump. . full of filling that was completely encased in masa. Not sure if that is a family tradition or a regional one.

                    1. re: lexdevil

                      I can beat that... ftw.

                      In any case... tamales, like many other things, traditionally come in many different sizes... from the cocktail size ones just a few inches long .. to the Zacahuiles of Veracruz (who on a average are several feet long)... there is quite a big range.

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        And I'm sure that we all know that it's not the size of the tamale...

                        1. re: lexdevil

                          Absolutely correct... a substantial tamale is not much worth much without the proper technique, timing, sabor & passion.

                          1. re: sydthekyd

                            FTW - New fangled internet acronym used by the young wins... For the Win (FTW)... culturally analogous with.... Top That!

                        2. re: lexdevil

                          I wonder if that's how the old Mae West picture is subtitleed in Mexico ... Is that a tamale in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

                          yeah, there are tamales in parts of Mexico as EN mentioned that cover a whole chicken or even larger animal.

                          1. re: rworange

                            just resteamed one for dinner - still very good but the hot one I had for lunch was at another level of goodness. they're almost too hot to handle when you get them out of the steamer but bring a plate or just unwrap them when theyi're no longer too hot to handle......yum!

                            1. re: gordon wing

                              Yeah, still good but not as amazing as out of the pot. You can ask them for a plate. Like I said, I was asking if there was any other sweet flavor other than pineapple like strawberry. I gave this a try in English and then in Spanish when her eyes lit up in 'comprehension' and asked "you would like a plate?" I gave up about then.

                              1. re: rworange

                                I had a corn tamale that was very sweet. I definitely considered it more of a dessert.

                        3. re: larochelle


                          In the Yucatan and parts south as far as Colombia, tamales tend to be larger. "Burrito sized" is rather vague. I can only speak for my family, but tamales were pretty much a main course, so they were large and you got exactly one of what was on the menu that day.

                          Also, the big tamales are often wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. Anybody want to report on what this place uses?

                    2. Yeah, thanks for the heads up. Pork tamale delicious as advertised and it stayed warm on the drive all the way home in Albany. A timely plug should help the business since it's location is unexpected.

                      12 Replies
                      1. re: EdwardAdams

                        i stopped by today and got chicken and beef. Here's what it seems is going on here. Sergio basically has that red sauce that he uses for each of the meats. The chicken and beef seemed to have the same sauce. Chicken was the least interesting. I liked the tender beef. They were out of cheese today.

                        Sergio's mom makes the pineapple tamales. He says sometimes they make raisin, but they are not as popular as pineapple. I'm with him there. I've never had a raisin tamale that was more than ok.

                        Poor Sergio is probably wondering what is going on. I asked about the green sauce and he said that he had two people ask about it this week (heh) and he was probably going to make some next week.

                        However, that's it. These are the recipes he and his mom have down. It is beef,chicken, pork in red sauce, cheese and pineapple.

                        Just a heads up. Opening up on Market and 35th is a new BBQ - Tomm's - "where friends meat" (sic). It's about a block or two away from what was Doug's location.

                        1. re: rworange

                          I told him that someone had put "the best tamales in the Bay Area" on a website. . . he said "Yeah, I know about Yelp." And I said, "uh, no. . this is on Chowhound - where they take food really seriously." I told him to prepare to get busy with guests that will have a lot of questions. :)

                          Making tamales is a lot of work. . .I understand why they keep it simple and do what they know.

                          1. re: pastryqueen

                            Yeah, They do what they do so well. Don't mess with perfection. Just finished the last of the beef tamal. Very nice.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I just drove down there an hour ago and tried the cheese and pork tamales (well, half of each, they really are big). I thought they were just OK. I'm kind of surprised.

                              The masa just didn't seem to have much flavor, and the texture seemed a little too "crumbly" rather than soft. As noted above, the cheese really does get hard and it separates from the masa. I wonder if their cheese tamale has to be eaten right out of the steamer.

                              Maybe I just got a bad batch? I'd give 'em one more try. My tamale experience is limited to Trader Joe's and Berkeley Bowl, but I remember liking those better.

                              Also, when I showed up, the door was locked and I ordered through a little window-like hole in the door. Is that how they usually do it? (Doesn't affect my "review" in any way...)

                              1. re: Agent 510

                                Sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy your tamales all that much. I haven't had the cheese ones yet but I have tried the pork ones ...... like i said in my above post - they were too hot to hold - right out of the big pot/steamer. I wanted to eat one right away because they'll never be better but instead I put them into the cooler I brought along and went home. When I got home they were still warm and the masa was almost creamy / tender - not crumbly. The ones I resteamed for dinner were different in texture though ....... not as hot/steamy/tender - more like other tamales I've remembered from other places. Think how long you steam them makes a difference in the texture ..... they can be hot and still a bit in the crumbly direction - keep going longer to get them plumped and tender. Filling aside, a tamale is about the masa for me - and the texture is paramount. I like the flavor of
                                the filling - just the right amount of spice/heat for me. Hope your ( and mine) next experience is better.

                                1. re: Agent 510

                                  Given the place has been making the same tamales using the same recipe by the same people for 15 years, I would highly doubt that you would enjoy them any more if you went back. I'm not a fan of any of the tamales that Trader Joes or Berkeley Bowl sells, so it is just a matter of taste. The Bowl versions are just too American palate pleasing. I don't believe they use lard.

                                  Usually the door is open and you can walk in.

                                  As mentioned these are best eaten right out of the pot. That is a rather unique experience tamal-wse ... a place that actually makes the tamal that day, cooks them on-site and then served them out of the pot. That is when the masa is at its prime ... not only for these tamales but others.

                                  Sure, those chests that they are sold out of on the street and markets are fine, but the masa suffers. Re-heating tamales is tricky and while they can be good they just never achieve that fresh out of the pot flavor.

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    How do you re-heat these things, anyway? I'm guessing "on a plate in the microwave" isn't the way to go.

                                    What's the sweet one filled with? Just pineapple chunks?

                                    1. re: Agent 510

                                      Oh, you are talking to the wrong person. Once home, I just nuke the things. It kills it. Hopefully someone has a better suggestion.

                                      I always expect more of sweet tamals than they deliver. So this is better than most because they miix the masa with brown sugar. Then like other pineapple versions there are pieces of pineapple.

                                      The only other sweet tamal i really liked was a pineapple coconut one from a vendor at the El Cerrito farmers market. She doesn't use lard either, so I find her regular tamales ok. However, that pineaplle one was good.

                                      1. re: rworange

                                        If you cant make it to a tamale shop the tamales from Costco are quite good. The Del Real pork or chicken tamales make a great, inexpensive snack or lunch, and are better than the majority of tamales you can buy in stores or restaurants.

                                        1. re: Agent 510

                                          Hey guys, an amazing tip from my Mexican neighbor: grill to reheat. It changes the flavor a bit -- makes the tamales a little bit toasty. Really really excellent.

                                          Previously I used to steam them (and still do for frozen tamales, our go to "emergency meal").

                              2. re: EdwardAdams

                                Hot all the way to Albany? We picked up about a dozen at 10:00 a.m. Stopped for lunch in Sacramento and did a litle grocery shopping in Auburn. We drove up the mountain to our home in Georgetown and they were still hot enough to eat.

                                I am used to great homemade tamales when we lived in the Santa Ana area and these beat them all, hands down.

                              3. Thanks for the tip. Next time I am in the East Bay I will have to try. Too bad I was there today and miss you post.

                                One weekend I need to try side by side with my local favorite off a cart on El Camino. I will report back when I do.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: yimster

                                  Had some today,

                                  We tried Pork ,Beef ,cheese and Vegetable.

                                  All had really really nice flavor.

                                  They handle the drive home very nice,almost to hot to eat right after you buy them.

                                  I wish they had more filling though, a couple of them were like 90% Masa.

                                  Price is right $2.25

                                  Trippy location...but in a way kinda convenient.

                                  1. re: Mission

                                    Does anyone know their hours? I stopped by yesterday around 4 and they were closed. Maybe they closed early for Cinco de Mayo?

                                    1. re: calalilly

                                      Hours: Mon-Sat 11am -6pm Sun 11am -2pm They might be a bit casual about keeping these hours though? If they run out of tamales - they might just close. And the selection will definitely be smaller later in the day. Can always call before heading over and have them hold your order ........ 510. 586-1244

                                      1. re: gordon wing

                                        Thanks for the info, will try for another day and report back.