Photo by Joy BastThe tamale survived the murderous Cortés, but can it survive Americanization?
Much of the tamale-eating experience is about geography and architecture, and for reasons no one has been able to explain, the best tamales in South Orange County are generally found in tortillerias tucked into the back corners of older strip malls.
There are exceptions: Casa Olamendi's in Laguna Beach is on the upscale side when it comes to authentic Mexican dining. You are greeted at the door with Mexican music, brightly painted walls and furniture, and Old World-style decorations. It's the sort of place in which you ask for a balcony seat for a sunny lunch or come later and watch the sun sink into the sea over the two T's: tamales and tequila.
On the balcony, if you squint really hard, it's almost as if you're in a Mexican coastal town. The tamale's taste adds detail to the mirage. It typically arrives on a combo plate, making it easier to eat from all the Mexican food groups. It's served without the husk and covered with a little cheese, with good corn masa and delicious, tender chicken chunks.
If you squint really hard while sitting in Javier's Cantina & Grill in Laguna Beach, it's almost as if you're in . . . well, Javier's Cantina & Grill in Laguna Beach. Their tamales are wrapped in cornhusk condoms that are tied at both ends and drenched in salsa verde. The masa is slightly dry, but the salsa is so damn tasty you'll keep eating well after your stomach says no more. A usual byproduct of Americanization is an increase in manufacturing costs (even post-NAFTA), but these tamales are worth the expense.
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Señor Pedro's Tacos, located across from the San Juan Capistrano Mission, leaves one question in your mind: Did Pedro build a taco stand by the mission, or did the mission settle down next to Pedro's? If Pedro was selling tamales to the frocked circa 1776, he apparently hasn't raised his prices or remodeled since. The place is easy to spot: cheap murals; sticky, powder-blue picnic tables; dirt parking lot; and tourists. Your food will arrive in a time period best measured in geologic terms, but the tamales are damn good. You'll swear each one was schlepped over the border by burro. Served (unfortunately) in a Styrofoam container, the tamale rests on a partially unbuttoned husk beneath a little mask of cheese and mole-like sauce. The masa is dense and the chicken stringy—in a good way. You'll have to order at least one for each person at your table because no one's going to share.
A couple of blocks away is the kitchen of Carniceria El Campeon, a Rube Goldberg tamale machine. A conveyor belt loaded with tortillas squeaks past a worker dipping huge sheets of animal flesh into fryers. He bumps into another guy whose arms move like wood-chipper blades as he shreds meat.
All things being equal, I find that the less I comprehend of a menu, the higher the odds I'm going to get authentic food. "Tamale" at Carniceria El Campeon was arranged on the menu near some other foods that only a Mexican mama could recognize. Unlike the other joints, their tamales are unencumbered by frills. It is a Bauhaus dish: cornhusk, moist masa, chicken. Slightly spicy, the tamale tasted so authentic I broke into fluent Spanish for the rest of the day.
Javier's Cantina & Grill, located at 480 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (949) 494-1239; Casa Olamendi's, located at 1100 S. Coast Hwy., Ste. 202, Laguna Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 497-4148; Señor Pedro's Tacos, located at 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, is open daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (949) 489-7752; Carniceria El Campeon, located at 31921 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, is open daily, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. (949) 240-3141.