In his recent book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, author and columnist Gustavo Arellano argues that until the 1950s and 60s, most (Norte) Americanos didn't even know what a taco was. But, almost everyone knew about the tamale because it was introduced to the world on the stage that was the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Soon after, Arellano writes, "tamale men" in large cities were ubiquitous, selling their goods on street corners in every major urban center (and sometimes even murdering one another over the best vending spots). And, of course, this steamy street food inspired the iconic 1920s Delta bluesman Robert Johnson who sang about his baby's tamales in his song "They're Red Hot." (Unless, by tamales, he meant... something else.)
Whether or not they still inspire murder or sex, there is one thing to remember about a good tamale: You can buy one and eat it later, but it tastes best to eat it right away.
El Pato Feliz
El Pato Feliz (The Happy Duck) makes a pretty mean pulled pork tamale, which comes wrapped in a dense cloud of savory masa and topped with a red mole, melted cheese, and a wide, almost too-creamy-to-be-true band of sour cream. But what makes this neighborhood eatery’s food taste even better is its atmosphere: vibrantly painted cerulean walls, a pair of TVs tuned to Mexican game shows, and a clientele that reflects the people who comprise the Lents community, including large Mexican families, couples, both young and old, and even some of Portland's finest: cops. In other words, it's the spot where everyone is welcome and where everyone goes.
El Pato Feliz, 5824 SE 92nd Ave., 503.772.1037
Taqueria Los Gorditos
Alicia Cruz, who runs Los Gorditos with her family, is a vegan. That's why her Doña Sara prepares, at her whim, a trio of tamales each week for the city's carnivores, herbivores and vegans. Each tamale, in the Northern Mexican tradition, is wrapped in a corn husk before being steamed and is paired with its own sauce, as per the chef's instructions. Los Gorditos does not serve alcohol, but it has a symbiotic relationship with Apex, the neighboring taproom. If you want to sit in Apex's beer garden, drink a beer and eat a tamale or two, just go in and order your food, have a seat outside, and listen closely for your number, which they'll shout out when your tamale is ready. The only drawback to these richly delicious tamales is that they're served just once a week: each Friday. So get 'em while you can.
Taqueria Los Gorditos, 1212 SE Division, 503.445.6289
If the rest of La Jarochita's menu reflects the surprising and inspiring flavors found in its homemade tamales, it makes sense that there's almost always a line. This little food cart, near the corner of SW 5th Avenue and Oak Street, serves up steamy, piping hot tamales wrapped in banana leaves, each of which is paired with a ramekin of spicy, citrusy tomatillo sauce. The tamales come in only one flavor (chicken), but after just one bite, you'll know that the wait was worth your time. And, you'll be forgiven if you feel a little guilty when you buy one, because these tamales taste as if they should cost far more than the $2 at which they're priced.
La Jarochita, SW 5th Ave. and Stark St., 503.421.9838
Balls the Cat's Moonshine Kitchen & Lounge
Sepal Mecham, who runs this off-the-beaten-path restaurant and bar with her fiancé, Josh Johnson, says she first started making tamales seven years ago when the commercial kitchen where she worked lost the services of the tamale man who supplied the restaurant with its fresh tamales. Over the subsequent years, she tried more than 50 different masa recipes until she settled on a keeper: the gluten-free, vegan masa that presently wraps all of her tamales, even the pork ones. Mecham's masa is unlike any other—it's moist but, at the same time, almost flaky—and her homemade chocolate ancho chile mole and her housemade guajillo salsa are, respectively, neither too sweet, nor too spicy. Bonus points for how they're presented: Each corn-husk wrapped tamale is bundled tightly together with a little corn-husk ribbon.
Balls the Cat's Moonshine Kitchen & Lounge, 1020 NW 17th Ave. 503.943.2780
The first thing you’ll notice about Mextiza's chiapaneco tamale is its color (a sort of orange), but the thing that truly stimulates you is its taste or, in this case, its many tastes. Prepared in the traditional Southern Mexican manner (specifically, the style practiced in the southwestern state of Chiapas), this banana leaf-wrapped tamale is stuffed with both chicken and pork, as well as raisins, green olives and slices of hard-boiled egg. Perfectly textured and right on the money, Mextiza's tamale seems as if it could get no better. But, when you taste the almond, pumpkin seed sauce that's been artfully poured atop it, you'll see that it does. Prepared fresh daily, these tamales are only available after 5 p.m., when dinner's served.
Mextiza, 2103 N Killingsworth, 503.289.3709
The masa at La Bonita is so moist and thick that it's almost creamy, the service is quick, and the pulled pork is savory and rich. In fact, the flavors and textures that make up La Bonita's corn husk-wrapped, chile verde carnitas tamales create the sensation you’d normally associate with chocolate: These tamales melt in your mouth. They come "dry," meaning, if you want some heat, you’ll need to dress them up with one of the housemade hot sauces, but the best part, besides the taste of course, is the price. The tamales are only $2.50 each, and if you can gather together a friend or two, you can order a half-dozen for just $12, which, for these flavors, is a steal.
La Bonita, 2839 NE Alberta St., 503.281.3662
What Portland restaurant or food cart serves up your favorite tamale? Let us know in the comments below.