I'd never quite understood the fuss over tamales. I found them to be heavy lumps, like bad protein bars, strictly meant for filling empty bellies. But Juan Tamale has shown me the way, and now I'm a believer.
Juan (or Juan Tamale, as he likes to be called) is the owner and head tamale maker at California Fiesta Tamale House. He's been crafting hand-made tamales for more than 15 years. He made a name for himself at a little stand in North Hills and six months ago opened a large, cheerful space on the third floor of the Burbank Town Center mall. It used to be a '50s diner so the red swivel bar stools remain, but it has a Mesoamerican feel now with an homage to corn's great history printed on the wall.
Corn is what it's all about here. Good tacos and burritos are available, but the real reason to come here are the moist, light, sweet tamales. Juan makes the batter fresh regularly with masa, water, baking powder and a soybean-based shortening. “No lard,” he promises, “so they're not greasy.” He then smears the batter into two corn husks, puts in the filling, wraps it again and nestles it alongside others in a basket, open-side up, where they steam for an hour and a half.
I know this because he does it right in front of dining customers. In the steamer, some sort of magic takes place. Each tamale ($2.66) emerges a fluffy, flavorful world unto itself.
Most people get the chicken, beef or pork tamales, but if you stick with those instead of sampling the vegetarian menu, you'll be missing the most interesting ones. The rajas con queso is extraordinary with its smoky green pepper and tangy Jack cheese. The fresh-veggie tamale has tender chunks of carrots, squash and celery inside. The corn tamale takes the sweet corn flavor up, not just a notch, but exponentially. You might try this one Fiesta style ($4.99) with melted cheese, green salsa and pico de gallo on top.
The shredded-pork tamale with its red chile sauce inside, would be good Ranchero style ($6.25) with salad and tomato ranchero sauce on top. This one comes with rice and beans, which are authentic and delicious.
Full to the brim, we knew we had to take a dozen home for visiting friends ($24.99/dozen). The tropical mango blew us all away. Slices of mango, sweet and tender as peaches, fill the corn tube from end to end. It made me wish I'd stuck around for Juan's experimental tamale-of-the-day, the “pina colada” with pineapple inside. The chocolate tamale made up for it. Here, the masa is colored a dark rich brown and surrounds a molten flow of warm Mexican chocolate. The accompanying salsa de chile de arbol adds a great kick. The salsa works better on some tamales than others. It fights with the spinach and cheese, for example, but complements most of the sweet ones.
Watching Juan perform his craft in front of us at California Fiesta Tamale House, I thought of children's television icon Fred Rogers, who said, “The thing I remember best about successful people ... is their obvious delight in what they're doing ... and they love it in front of others.” You can taste Juan's delight in these tamales.
LISA DUPUY writes restaurant reviews for Marquee. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.
California Fiesta Tamale House
Where: 201 E. Magnolia, Space 374, Burbank
When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Contact: (818) 567-6100