100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 38, Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana

Looking for some old-school tamales like grandma used to make? Look no further.
Looking for some old-school tamales like grandma used to make? Look no further.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg

This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

I have always been sad that I didn't grow up with an abuela who taught me how to make tamales. My family is largely Irish, so tamale-making wasn't really in our DNA. I tried to make them a few times, and though they were good, they lacked a certain authenticity that I crave in tamales. I made tamales because I wanted to eat tamales. They weren't made with love.

Now, I can neither confirm nor deny that the tamales made by La Mexicana have a little heart and soul poured into them, but they do taste exactly like what I used to eat at friends' houses during the holidays, when their families would gather together for tamaladas and share the wealth of their knowledge and labor.

La Mexicana sells tamales by the dozen, half dozen, or simply singly, or as part of a lunch or dinner plate. Pork is the only option available, but it comes with either spicy or mild masa. Every time I go to La Mexicana and order tamales, I'm tempted to amend my order from the plate to, "Eh, just give me a dozen with a side of salsa." That's how good they are.

There's a trick to making tamales, and a lot of it has to do with the proper masa mixture and the ideal masa-to-filling ratio. Start with the wrong masa, and the tamales will be too dry. Too much masa, and that's all they'll taste like. Too little, and they'll fall apart.

At La Mexicana, the ratio is spot on. A hefty serving of shredded pork and spices wrapped in a 1/4- to 1/8-inch envelope of masa. The masa itself is wonderfully seasoned (I always order the spicy) -- a welcome change from lesser tamales whose masa tastes like ground corn paste and nothing more.

When you order the tamale plate, it comes with seasoned Spanish rice, smoky refried beans, shredded lettuce and fresh pico de gallo with large chunks of kelly-green jalapeño. You can also get extra bright, citrusy tomatillo green salsa and deep, earthy, ruddy red salsa, which I usually end up mixing together into a sort of salsa cocktail then spreading liberally over the tamales.

They don't really need the extra heat or the extra moisture, though. These tamales are soft enough and spicy enough to eat without any extra accoutrements, with your hands, right out of the corn husk, as one might munch on a whole pickle. In fact, the only reason I choose to attack my tamales with a knife and fork is for the sake of civility.

But when I get those dozen and take them home to eat in the privacy of my own bed kitchen, all bets are off.

See the full list of favorites on the next page.


The list so far: No. 39: Mum's Chicken Curry At The Queen Vic Pub No. 40: Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's No. 41: Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith No. 42: Fried Oyster Po'Boy at Goode Company Seafood No. 43: Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai No. 44: BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 45: Guanciale Burger at Plonk No. 46: Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario No. 47: CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar No. 48: The El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme

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