If your family is anything like my own, tamales are a Christmas staple. And in my family, tamale-making typically begins the day after Thanksgiving with several pots of stewed meat on the stove, several pounds of corn husks and giant vats of masa laid out like a Ford assembly line between the dining room and the kitchen.
Of course, not every family makes their tamales from scratch. (Hell, we don't even do that anymore. Sorry, future generations of Gonzales kids.) So for the rest of us, here's a list of the 10 best places in town to snag your tamales in time for the Christmas season.
Remember: Order early and order a lot. Tamales hold up in the freezer almost as well as ice cream.
Honorable Mention: Radical Eats
Although these vegan tamales aren't for everyone, they certainly would make the vegetarians and vegans in your life quite happy at Christmas (or any other time of year). And as with most of Staci Davis's exceptional Tex-Mex fare, you won't miss the meat -- and you'd be hard-pressed to tell that her masa is lard-free.
Chef and owner Sylvia Casares is so well-known for her tamales that she occasionally shows others how to recreate them in her popular tamale-making classes -- if you're lucky enough to snag a spot. For the holidays, Sylvia's will be selling its pork and chicken tamales for $18 a dozen, but you'll need to order well in advance.
This little bakery-cum-restaurant-cum-convenience store in Denver Harbor almost defies definition. And with its broken ceiling tiles, dim florescent lighting and degraded linoleum floors, it has definitely got a far more intense hole-in-the-wall vibe than places such as Alamo or Doña Tere. But both the food and the cheerful attitude of the staff will make you forget all of that once you're inside. Porra's offers tamales for a mere $8 a dozen and the masa-to-meat ratio is heavy on the masa side (not bad if -- like us -- you enjoy "deaf" tamales with no filling).
At this Southwestern-meets-Tex-Mex temple to tequila, the star of the menu is the wild mushroom tamale (seen above) filled with goat cheese and topped with mushroom cream, roasted corn and sundried tomato salsa. And when it's on the menu, the sweet potato masa-wrapped tamale that holds a filling of rich, fatty duck is even better.
While the little push-cart that Walter Berryhill once sold his tamales from is no longer in commission, his recipes are still followed to the T every day at Berryhill Baja Grill. That's where you can find the famous Berryhill spinach-and-corn tamales along with chicken and beef versions. They're all incomplete without the thin, ruddy tamale sauce that goes on top, however, with the perfect blend of vinegar and spice to cut through the masa.
Oh, so you want a classy tamale? Look no further than RDG + Bar Annie, where chef Robert del Grande's take on Mexican and Southwestern cuisine produces a $25 tamale that's almost worth the high ticket price. RDG's tamale comes stuffed with Texas quail and corn, served alongside pan-roasted mushrooms that call to mind the mushroom-stuffed tamales at Hugo's. But the pièce de résistance is the huitlacoche sauce on top, with that signature dusky, funky flavor of Mexican truffles (a.k.a. corn smut).
Gerardo's offers more than just its signature barbacoa and carnitas. Around this time of year, it stocks up on supplies to make tamales, too, as the carnicería is always flooded with orders for its equally tempting tamales. It's also a favorite Christmas tamale haunt of former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh.
Goode Co. Seafood's unique seafood tamales are unlike anything else in town. The handmade tamales are stuffed with shrimp and wrapped in banana leaves, Oaxaca-style, and served with a spicy salsa campechana that's quickly soaked up by the silky masa.
The mushroom tamales at Hugo's are mind-blowing -- and although they may sound like an upscale spin on Mexican food, they're actually very traditional. Chef Hugo Ortega serves mushroom tamales as a side dish with lamb and makes another kind of mushroom tamale called a zacahuil for an appetizer. The zacahuil is made by layering banana leaves in a clay pot and then baking the tamales inside. Ortega explains that mushrooms are part of the traditional cuisine of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla and Tlaxcala, and that people in these regions have been making mushroom soup, mushroom quesadillas and mushroom tamales for centuries.
They cost a dollar apiece, which may seem expensive -- but the tamales at Doña Tere Tamales aren't your average Tex-Mex version. These are Mexico City-style tamales, and each one is three to four times bigger than the kind we're used to. Chicken with mole and pork with green chile are the best fillings, but sweet tamales with raisins are also popular. If you're eating them for breakfast, bring your own coffee.
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There's a reason Alamo Tamale Factory won the Best of Houston® award for Best Tamales back in 2008: The tamales are pefectly plump and filled with just the right amount of savory pork. The important masa-to-meat ratio is always precise here, with the meat incredibly moist and well-seasoned. You won't need any of the incredibly benign salsa that's served alongside your tamales, owing to the grease that seeps out from the filling (which, at times, can be a little on the heavy side -- but it's a price we're willing to pay).