Photo by Jessica CalkinsIn my line of work, the greatest danger comes from contact with the most terrifying, ruthless person in society—the food snob. Sometimes, I see one in the mirror when I'm in one of my soapbox moods, but mostly, I run across one in casual situations where food and my writing about said topic become conversational grist.
And this I've learned: the food snob comes from no single class, ethnicity or economic strata. The rants can range from French wines to French fries, but surprisingly, in my experience, the leading source of food-snob rage is focused on one of the most humble, simple foods on earth: the tamale.
These tirades come in two forms. The first one goes something like this: "No restaurant on earth can make a tamale like my Tía Leti, so you do not know what a real tamale tastes like, cabrón!" And the second: "You cannot truly appreciate a tamale if you do not understand the deep cultural issues involved!"
Fair enough. I've eaten pasta sauce made by real Sicilian grandmothers that puts everything else to shame, so I understand point one. And no, other than knowing that styles vary from one Latin American culture to the next, I'm not that hip to tamale anthropology.
But I still like tamales.
Specifically, I like the green corn tamales served by El Cholo Café. A lot.
First served up by Rosa Borquez in 1923 in LA's famous El Cholo Café (her grandson Ron Salisbury owns the restaurant group these days), these tamales are a Southern California dining institution. They are served only from May through October, and the annual tamale-making party held on the last Tuesday in April is the biggest Mexican feast this side of Cinco de Mayo.
These tamales are quite unlike any I've ever chugged down. First of all, they're made from sweet corn masa, giving them more a flavor of dessert tamales. That fresh, sweet corn flavor erupts in your mouth kinda of like the way the first bite of really good piece of cheesecake does. But these tamales offer more. On bites two and three, you'll find oozing sharp Cheddar cheese and Ortega chiles, which combined compete against the sweet corn with a snappy alternative. I guarantee that first-timers will scarf these tamales down with extreme prejudice.
The tamales are served as an entrée—two of them with beans and rice. Or you can buy them solo for three bucks each, something I do for takeout. In fact, one of my first rites of summer is to head out to El Cholo for an annual gorge on their green corn tamales. Call it a tradition.
Normally, I'm not a fan of big-box Mexican restaurants, but I make an exception for El Cholo because of its history and pedigree. The La Habra site is 40 years old, quite impressive for an Orange County restaurant. And they added a second site in Irvine a few years ago.
El Cholo pretty much wrote the blueprint for the big enchilada, beans, rice and margarita feasts so prevalent at gringofied Mexican restaurants. While tamales and enchiladas are their traditional strengths, some of the specials warrant your attention. The carnitas plate is a volcano-shaped mound of roast pork chunks erupting from the center of a massive plate. These carnitas are perfect—slightly charred on the outside and moist inside. Also impressive are the tacos al carbon, soft tacos bursting with grilled bits of steak. But what makes these different is the addition of bacon, a common ingredient in the Mexico City-style of cooking that adds a great deal of flavor and authenticity to these tacos.
Still, when summer comes, I know it's time to indulge in two local traditions: cower in disgust as the Angels blow apart another season and haul my butt up to the northernmost corner of the county to get my fill of green corn tamales. I prefer the second much more.
El Cholo Café, located at 840 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (562) 691-4618. Full bar. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.