Editor's note: A version of this story goes all the way back to 2011, if not earlier. Just keep adding to the list over the years, you know?
Every year, I get asked where to buy tamales in Orange County for Christmas, and every year I offer the same answer: My mom's and mi Tía María, but you can't have any. Tough tamales, folks!
But, of course, that's not a helpful answer to those of ustedes who don't want to take an entire day to make three dozen, or those of you gabachos not lucky enough to have a Mexican in your office that will unload all of their tamales for the next month or so, so following is a list of places in OC to get tamales for Christmas. Some of these restaurants only sell them at the menu, but I'm sure you can arrange something with them to buy a bunch to go. Others, on the other hand, sell them in bulk—and fast. Anyhoo, enjoy!
Oh, and a stylistic note: I use the term “tamale” instead of “tamal” for this article because I'm writing in English, and I'd have to italicize tamal any time I'd use to please my copy editor. Anyone offended by my choice is a custodian of Cervantes—which is to say, has no life.
And a disclaimer: There are no South County tamales here because none of them beat those on the list. Step up your game, cabrones.
Tacos El Yogi
Such a recent addition that I barely reviewed it this week, this food trailer sells tamales of the corn-husk and banana-leaf style. But their best offering is the guajolota—a torta de tamal, as carb-o-riffic as it sounds. On the northwest corner of Birch Street and McFadden Avenue, SanTana. No phone number.
We need to give a shout-out to our Salvadoran cousins for their soft, pillowy tamales, and fewer places are better to buy them than the legendary El Chinaco in Costa Mesa. You should always support this Salvi spot above all others, in honor of owner Mirna Burciaga's stance against anti-Mexican loons last decade. 560 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8632; www.elchinaco.com
Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
If this alta cocina standard doesn't already sell them in bulk, they should start. Great high-falutin' tamales by Gabbi Patrick. I'd say more, but I'm eating one right now! 141 S. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 633-3038; www.gabbipatrick.com
The legendary donut place run by Cambodians that sells chicken tamales big enough to use as mortar—but delicious enough to eat. 13016 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 539-6995
This is a bit of a cheat. Chef Carlos Salgado and his #2, Roland Rubalcava, are master tamaleros…when they feel like it. I haven't seen what their winter menu will be, but I'm sure the two will devise some tamales that could play in the time of the Olmecs or win the restaurant a James Beard award. So next time you go, tell the chingones to bust some out! 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444;
El Camino Cafe
El Camino is impressing more and more people with their basic yet essential take on Mexican standards. Their rajas con queso tamale deserves a giant sign outside their small restaurant for all of December. 195 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 573-5898; elcaminocafe.com
Years ago, I ordered a huge batch of tamales de mole negro for my class at UCLA. The Oaxacan restaurant didn't disappoint, of course, with tamales as big as cinder blocks yet delicate, sweet, and sumptuous. They sell other types of tamales, too—all bueno. 700 E. Commonwealth Ave, Fullerton, (714) 773-4290; elfortinrestaurant.com
Sarinana's Tamale Factory
The proof is in the name, right? But beyond that, OC's oldest-standing Mexican restaurant (since 1936!) has perfected the art of making tamales rojos. There's a reason why they sell tamales all year round, and it's not because it's the only Spanish word Chicanos know how to say…HA! 2216 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.
Las Brisas de Apatzingan
Makers of the best regional style of tamale—the huchepo. Small, super-sweet (but not dessert!) tamales from Michoacán, they are sold year-round but always a delight to buy during the holidays, especially when you put them in front of non-michoacano Mexicans who think they're the most paisa person since Chalino Sanchez but don't know shit. 1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-5584.
La Poblana Bakery
Out of all the mass producers of tamales in Orange County, this is the one that has always called to me, and not just because their strawberry tamales are things of legend. Perhaps it's because La Poblana remains strong in the face of Chapman University gentrification and the continuing frat transformation of Old Towne Orange. Or maybe because my compa Cheeser from ElMo swears by them—and he's more raza than Cuauhtémoc. Anyhoo, as fine a tamale factory as any in OC. Don't forget the champurrado. 604 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 771-4465.
But even they can't compare to the finest tamale seller of them all…
That Lady That Sells Them from a Cooler Near Your Mexican Friend's House
But no matter where you might go for your tamales, no one beats the tamaleras that sell them daily underground—from car trunks, from carts that they push up and down streets in barrios, at church sales. Who are they? Ask your friend—TRUST ME…no locations given lest Health Department pendejos crack down on these amazing people…but ask your Mexican friend.