Mom’s Tamales—L.A.’s Best?

Nestled against the hills of Lincoln Heights, my wife’s old stomping grounds, is Mom’s Tamales, considered one of the best tamalerias in Los Angeles. Recipe handed down from grandmother, to mother and and now to current owner, the tamales are so popular that any of the six on the menu may be unavailable at any time because customers may have depleted the day’s stock. Bulk purchases can be made by the dozen either steamed or unsteamed ($3 cheaper).

The business’ exterior is not much to look at, the front of a brick warehouse from all appearances except for the restaurant’s name painted high on the wall in Mexican tri-colors. Similar non-descript buildings are to the north, a dirt yard surrounded by chainlink fencing and an overgrown property hiding a crowing rooster to the south.

Inside, things are more cheery, floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall, tables spread out over the telltale warehouse space and a mural on the north wall. Still, for all the windows, it was dim inside.

momstamales - 1

My brother-in-law and I arrived at 9:30am shortly after Mom’s opened. The breakfast menu looked interesting—machacachilaquileshuevos rancherosspinach and eggs and one of my favorites, chorizo con huevos. But, this place is known for tamales, so both he and I opted for the tamale combination, any two tamales paired with rice and beans. My choices were spinach and cheese and chicken molé. I had never come across the latter before; since I love molé sauce, I had to have one. Both fillings were very tasty, as was my brother-in-law’s cheese and jalapeno. But what distinguished these tamales was the extraordinary masa, more light and fluffy than I can ever recall having eaten. Are these the best tamales in L.A.? Could be.

Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured Mom’s in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives a few years ago.

Mom’s Tamales
3328 Pasadena Ave
Los Angeles CA

Making of the New Year Tamales

For osechi-ryori, many Japanese American families living in the eastern part of the Los Angeles area have adopted the making of tamales. My wife’s family is no exception, having lived in Lincoln Heights, an Hispanic enclave, for a long time before moving to the San Gabriel Valley. For a festival whose food has long ago shrugged off its symbolic significance, it is more about gathering family together on New Year’s Day and enjoying the food, including non-traditional dishes that are more culinarily relevant today.

The making of tamales has been a family affair involving many hands. It takes time and effort to make the ingredients, spread the masa, lay the fillings, wrap and steam almost a hundred tamales. My wife’s youngest sister has taken the responsibility of coordinating the event. She makes the fillings and brings over all the ingredients and prepares for both meat-filled and vegetarian versions.

Her tasty beef filling is one we all love. It’s made by simmering a beef chuck roast (or another cut) in enchilada sauce, Herdez salsa casera and El Pato salsa de jalapeño until the meat is fork-tender. After it’s done, it glistens in a thick, spicy, almost iridescent dark red sauce.

To commercially prepared masa dough, she adds garlic powder, garlic salt, dried oregano and ground cumin.

There is no single template for the tamales. They are pretty much happenings, the assemblers creating whatever strikes their fancy. This is part of the fun. The entire process takes several hours to complete. The following pictures speak for themselves.

Masa dough, roasted corn, black beans, olives, roasted chiles, corn husks

Masa dough, roasted corn, black beans, olives, roasted chiles, corn husks

Spreading the masa

Adding the fillings

Adding the fillings

Tamale with pork

Tamale with pork

Tying the husk (this step identifies tamales for the vegetarians)

Tying the husk (this step identifies the vegetarian tamales)

Ready to steam

Ready to steam

Steaming the tamales

Steaming the tamales

A little spirit to urge the troops on.

Lychee martini

Lychee martini

Léona’s Restaurante (Chimayo, NM)

Carne adovada burrito

Leona’s was a little gem in Chimayo, across the walkway from the Santuario. Since 1977, Leona Medina-Tiede has been serving delicious snack foods, primarily burritos and tamales. I ordered the carne adovada burrito, very different from the adovada I had at El Bruno’s. This was a wonderful adovada, more tender than Bruno’s, more garlicky, shredded and salty, and lightly combined with red chile sauce. Her red chile sauce, also served on the side, was pure, unadorned chile powder and water, with a hint of natural sweetness. We purchased a jar of the green chile sauce, it was so good.

Chicken burrito

Green and red chile sauces

At checkout, for later eating, we purchased biscochitos (anise-flavored cookies) and a tub of real chicharrones, not the “chips” that are sold in cellophane packages in supermarkets.


Unfortunately, as of October 16, the restaurant portion will be closed when Leona retires from the cooking business. But the shop will continue selling gift items.

Update: The restaurant, after being closed for a few years, has re-opened. Unfortunately, Leona is no longer with us, but her legacy continues through Leona’s eldest daughter and her family.

Leona’s (Restaurant now closed, gift shop still open)
17 Santuario Drive
Chimayo, NM 87522
(505) 351-4569