Masas of This Domain

Every Christmas Eve, my mother and her sisters retire to their respective kitchens and create the annual Miranda batch of tamales. And, oh, what masa beauties they slap out! Tamales of pork sluiced with red salsa. Chicken tamales doused in green salsa. Tamales fat with cactus and cheese (my mother's specialty). Tamales mixed with rajas (strips of peppers). Even dessert tamales—raisin, pineapple and the sumptuous strawberry tamale. Paradise.

Sorry, gentle readers: you ain't getting any of them unless you're related to me. Or work at the Weekly. Or can answer which Simpsons character looms over my desk. But I'll give ustedes the next-best thing: the three best places to buy Mexican tamales in Orange County.

We start with Orange County's oldest Mexican restaurant: Sarinana's Tamale Factory in Santa Ana. Established in 1936, Sarinana's is as close an approximation of Mexico as you'll find in these parts—and, being that the restaurant is in the most-Latino big city in America, that's saying something. Sarinana's is in the middle of a neighborhood that probably last saw an asphalt crew a quarter-century ago. It occupies what used to be someone's home. Men stand idly down the street, looking for work or drinking the day away.

Don't fret, gabachos: Sarinana's tamales are worth the danger zone. Their tamales de puerco are piggie bliss: lean pork shreds mixed with a smoldering red-chile paste baked into a tough-but-malleable masa casing. While you're at Sarinana's, make sure to buy a bag of their notorious chicharrónes: gnarled cylinders of hog fat baked for hours until each looks like a Precambrian fossil. The first time I chomped into one of them, I could only withstand that one bite—in my mouth, the coal-hard chicharrón immediately transformed into a river of lard. I gagged. “Obviously not a regular,” said my companion. Add a sprinkle of lime and salsa as garnish, and you have quite a tasteful angioplasty awaiting you. 2218 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.

El Fortín is in a similarly dicey neighborhood in Fullerton, and the restaurant could use some air conditioning. But those are minor quibbles considering this is one of the county's five restaurants to specialize in the cuisine of Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state renowned amongst foodies for its stunning cuisine and by everyone else for its brewing revolution. El Fortín's cooks slap out five types of tamales, all foreign to the Southern California diet of chicken and pork tamales. One type of tamale oozes with yellow mole, a mild sauce sweet and spicy like curry. The tamal de chepil, meanwhile, features a mint-like herb that refreshes the palate with each bite.

But the king of Orange County's Mexican tamales is El Fortín's mole negro tamale: a pillow of masa wrapped in a banana leaf containing shredded pork and mole negro. The pork is lean, the masa hearty, but it's the mole negro—a gritty, slightly bitter sauce made from chocolate—that will make you act like everyone else and order a dozen to go.700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-4290; also at 10444 DaleAve., Stanton, (714) 252-9120.

I had never tasted corundas until this year, when Rivera Mexican Food opened in Garden Grove, and I still don't understand them. Few stateside restaurants stock the treat, a type of tamale native to the central Mexican state of Michoacán that's a staple of the Purépecha Indians. Triangular masa slabs made from white corn are steamed, then topped with pork sluiced in a gentle salsa—an inside-out tamale, essentially. A dollop of crema ranchera (Mexican sour cream) oozes down the masa and the meat.

Tamales are famous for their filling, gentle charm, but the corunda is the culinary version of eating a pillow—you won't want to do anything for the rest of the week after feasting on these lovelies. The masa is moist and puffy, the pork lean and shredded, the crema ranchera salty and sweet. Placed on top of each other, you can taste each individual flavor or mash them up. 12801 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 539-0181.

Tamales aren't exclusive to Mexico, and eaters looking for other types can enjoy Salvadoran (El Carbonero, 803 S. Main St., Santa Ana, 714-542-6653. Also at 9516 W. Katella Ave., Garden Grove, 714-527-4542), Guatemalan (Tikal Tienda y Restaurante, 1002 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, 714-973-8547), Peruvian (Picantería Ariquepeña El Misti, 3070 W. Lincoln Ave, Anaheim, 714-995-5944; and even Costa Rican tamales (La Casa de Fernando, 2500 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, 714-527-2010). The tamales at these restaurants are fine, even delicious. But trust me: nothing beats Mexican tamales. Especially my mother's. Too bad you'll never know—unless you guess the Simpsons character. Hint: he wears black shoes.

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