(All photos by Mark Navarro unless otherwise specified)
Christmas is just around the corner and that usually means a holiday feast. For many of us here in the Old Pueblo, the signature dish of that feast is Tamales.
A tamale (English from tamales, the plural of the Spanish ‘tamal’) is a dish made of masa, steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. Filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilis or any preparation, both filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.
Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC and were popular in Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations long before the Spanish invaded the new world. The Aztecs prepared varieties such as turkey, flamingo, frog, rabbit, honey, and fruit – without the added fat of lard and oil – while the Mayans ate iguana and corn tamales.
Local Tucson varieties typically trace their tamale roots to northern Mexican cuisine, in which tamales are made from a corn (hominy) dough called masa, lard or vegetable shortening, and wrapped in corn husks prior to steaming. Tamales are a favorite comfort food in Mexico, most commonly filled with pork, beef or chicken, in either red or green sauce.
People throughout Southern Mexico, Central America and South America typically serve tamales steamed in Plantain leafs instead. Tamales are traditionally prepared in batches of dozens if not hundreds – it’s an all day affair!
Tamales became one of the most popular international representatives of Mexican culinary tradition in Europe, as one of the first samples the Spanish conquistadors took back to Spain, and are amongst the most popular of dishes served during festivities such as Christmas, the Day of the Dead, Las Posadas, La Candelaria Day and Mexican Independence Day.
This holiday, immerse yourself in traditional local Mexican cuisine. Whether the Christmas season awakens your family nostalgia, finds you planning a holiday party, or you’re new to this Old Pueblo tradition, here’s a list of nine local establishments sure to meet your every tamale need.
With three locations and tamales its namesake, Tucson Tamale Company has helped to put tamales on our city’s map. There’s something for everyone here: meat (chicken, pork, shrimp or beef), vegetarian, vegan, non-GMO, non-lard – and even dessert tamales, too. Presented and served in the husks with a selection of salsas, it’s a simple and tasty experience. A whopping 28 varieties don their regular menu with additional seasonal choices for the holidays. We tried eight of them. The Santa Fe - with pork loin, green chili and cheese - melted in our mouths. The Blue Corn tamale is a winner for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Its blue colored masa and tasty calabacitas filling pleased both our eyes and our taste. For dessert, or for those who desire a sweeter choice, the Puerto Rico is a beautiful sweet taste of roasted plantains in yam masa.
How to Get: Most days, 15 varieties are available on the restaurant’s menu, with an additional 13 varieties available frozen-only. So eat-in, take-out (prepared or frozen), cater your next party, mail order, or find them at over 20 locations throughout Arizona. You still have time to special order a catered meal, or purchase an amazing frozen assortment.
For more info, visit TucsonTamale.com.
For decades, word on the street has been that Lerua’s makes the best homemade Green Corn Tamales. And there’s a reason why. Lerua’s owns a stone mill to grind the corn from scratch and they have used it ever since Abuela was cooking. Their corn is sourced from northern Mexico to ensure the specific variety and best quality. Made with pure white ground corn (no masa), cheese, soybean oil, salt and sugar (no lard), and encased in the original green husks, the Green Corn Tamales are a vegetarian’s delight. But, Lerua’s features more than just Green Corn. Seven different varieties currently adorn their menu including Red Chile Beef, Red Chile Chicken, Carnitas (pork), the special Red Chile Beef for Christmas (made with raisins, olives, and/or jalapeños for an authentic holiday tradition), Sweet Pumpkin (dessert), and Sweet Bean (dessert). Their Sweet Bean made our photographer feel like a kid again, immersed in his family’s tradition; infused with cinnamon, sugar, clove, and nutmeg, its sweet masa is delightful to the taste, only to be outdone by the puréed pinto bean and raisin filling it encases.
How to Get: Lerua’s makes more than 15,000 dozen tamales in-house every year and offers prepared or frozen catering and take-out. They’ll ship anywhere in the country overnight when you pay the freight. But hurry, you'll to order by 12/19 for the holiday.
For more info, visit leruasfinemexicanfoods.com.
El Charro Café, a Tucson culinary staple and the nation’s oldest continuously family owned Mexican restaurant in the United States, is well known for many of their dishes. And yet, we were still unbelievably impressed with their tamales. Head to El Charro for a finer, more refined, tamale dining experience that’s still – well – affordable. Not only are the varieties totally scrumptious, but El Charro wins our virtual prize for presentation, giving the customer the opportunity to eat pure art. Currently offering six varieties, you can choose from Fresh Corn (vegetarian), Pork Carnitas, Chicken Tomatillo, Red Chile Beef, Christmas Tamales, or Pumpkin Tamales. We opted for the Tamale Temptation Trio, a sample of the Pork Carnitas, Chicken Tomatillo and Fresh Corn. Served husked and adorned with gourmet sauces, each variety was tasty, moist and pleasing. And hats off to El Charro for serving up the only Chicken Tamale with green sauce that we found in the city. As if the main meal wasn’t scrumptious enough, we ordered the Pumpkin Tamale for dessert. Its tasty pumpkin puree encased in sweet corn masa – served with a small side of ice cream, buñuelo strips, whipped topping and drizzled with honey – was heavenly.
How to Get: Dine-in, cater your party, or order take-out. El Charro Café offers the special Christmas (Corn with Red Chiles) and Pumpkin varieties through the holidays only. They recommend calling in your order at least one day in advance for prepared party catering.
For more info, visit elcharrocafe.com.
Head over to La Mesa Tortillas & Tamales for lunch or to purchase your favorite traditional tamales in Red Beef, Red Pork, Red Chicken or Green Corn varieties. All of the Red Chile varieties (Beef, Pork and Chicken) are gluten-free and prepared with traditional masa, Chili Colorado and shredded meat sensationally seasoned and including a prized Spanish olive. Their meat tamales are the perfect combination of tender and moist, and offer a good chili flavor with just enough spice to give your mouth a kick without setting it on fire. For Green Corn lovers who want an option that isn’t sweet masa, theirs is perfect. They place Hatch chilis and cheese inside their Green Corn variety for a truly savory experience.
Note: Head to their central or east side locations for their Chicken Tamales; they’re not available at the Northwest location.
For more info, visit lamesatortillas.com.
Carlota’s offers tasty tradition to the area’s Northwest residents. Join them at either location for traditional Red Beef or Green Corn Chili tamales. Prepared with shredded beef, chili colorado and olive, and with pleasant spice, we found their Red Beef variety to be one of the best we tasted. Carlota's uses Anaheim chilis in their Green Corn recipe, offering a slightly different taste compared to competitors’ Hatch chili varieties. Topped but not smothered with a layer of cheese, these subtle variations offer a delightfully unique Green Corn experience.
How to Get: Dine-in, take-out or cater. Call at least one day ahead to prepare large orders.
For more info, visit carlotastucson.com.
One of the most well-known, authentic Mexican restaurants the city has to offer. This south side establishment is the place where many celebrities eat when they visit Tucson – even President Clinton ate here. Every dish we’ve tasted at Mi Nidito has been fabulous, including their tamales. They offer only one variety – the Red Beef Tamale – but what they do, they do well. Why only beef? Because that is what their customers order. Give it a try: homemade masa surrounds shredded beef and green olive, husked and topped with red sauce just for you. Every part of the tamale is made from scratch at Mi Nidito, including the masa.
How to Get: Dine-in, take-out or cater your next fiesta. Call one day ahead for prepared plates, or stop by for frozen dozens. They are open late into the night, so you can still get your tamale fix long after the competitors close.
For more info, visit minidito.net.
For a traditional Native American flair, travel over to 4th Avenue for a taste of Tohono Tarascan style Mexican food and try their tamales in your choice of Chicken or Green Corn. Both are served husked and uniquely covered in a red sauce with a light layer of cheese.
How to Get: Dine-in, take-out, or cater your party. Please order 2-3 days in advance for catering and special orders.
For more info, visit lainditarestauranttucson.com.
Head down to the south side for authentic Sonoran-style Mexican tamales. Located on the corner of 4th Avenue & 36th Street, Crossroads has been family owned and operated for over 75 years. Order your tamale plate in either Red Beef or Green Corn varieties. Authentically prepared, husked, and covered in red sauce, carrot, potato and green olive accompany the shredded beef in their Red Beef tamale. Husked and covered in cheese, if you like very sweet Green Corn tamales, order them here. The tamale plate is served with refried beans, salad and Spanish rice.
How to Get: Dine-in, take-out or call to cater your party.
For more info, visit crossroadsfinemexican.com.
Rounding out our tamale tour is El Sur Restaurant. There’s nothing fancy here – and that’s why we like it. El Sur offers a down-home experience, service with a smile, good food and very affordable prices. On a tight budget? You can get a nice tasting, plentiful meal here. They serve traditional Red Beef and Green Corn varieties. Their Green Corn is perfect for those who prefer the sweeter side of tamale life. Served with rice, salad, and refried beans, the waitress will come to your table to offer you fresh grilled onions and chilis to top off your meal.
How to Get: Dine-in, take-out or catered. A notice of one day is required for frozen or prepared dozens.
For more info, visit elsurrestaurant.com.