“Tamales are a magical thing,” a man named Gustavo Arellano once told the NYT.
In Dallas, these steamed beauties are as part of Christmas tradición as peppermint candies and hot chocolate. We buy them by the dozen, in bulk, and we hoard them in our freezers. We save them for cold weather days, when all you want to do is eat a couple tamales for dinner.
Making tamales is a kitchen ritual for moms and grandmothers who gather every year to make this laborious dish. It’s time consuming, but so worth the effort. (According to everyone who has ever made it.)
True to holiday spirit, we taste-tested five different pork tamales from local Dallas establishments. It was hard to narrow the places down. There are too many great places to choose from. We decided to stick with popular places people go for their Christmas tamales, just so you can use this as a guide for ordering.
A. La Victoria’s pork tamales / $2.50 each
B. La Popular Tamale’s pork tamales (“made with juicy pork roast with guajillo chili pods and spices) / $12 per dozen
C. Urban Taco’s cochinita pibil tamales / donated by Urban Taco
D. Luna’s Tortilla Factory’s pork tamales / $14 per dozen
E. Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory’s pork tamales / $9.50 per dozen
- “Pork is very fatty and delicious.”
- “Lots of filling, but dry. Tasteless.”
- “Too much pork. And pork is slightly stringy. Needs much more masa.”
- “Thick masa, lovely pork.”
- “So much masa, not so much pork. “
- “Toughest meat.”
- “Good chile flavor, great balance between meat and masa.”
- “Very, very dry.”
- “Dry meat and flavorless masa.”
- “Different. Not a traditional flavor, but still good.”
- “Masa is too bready, rose too much. Also a slightly fruity after-taste.”
- “Tasted sweet, almost like it had fruit or something in it.”
- “Really liked the flavors/texture on this one.”
- “Masa was doughy.”
- “Tended to fall apart. Pork flavored nicely.”
- “Nice mix of spices, fell apart easily.”
- “Don’t like the pork flavor on this one. No spices!”
- “Little dry, but good flavor on masa.”
- “Bad masa to meat ratio.”
- “Looks like a tamale, tastes like a tamale… hands down winner.”
- “Whole wheat flavor. Slightly dry meat covered by the strong masa wheat flavor.”
- “Darkest masa, least amount of meat.”
- “Lardy and spicy.”
- “A little on the dry side. But at least it didn’t fall apart on me.”
4 votes for (D) Luna’s
3 votes for (A) La Victoria
1 votes for (C) Urban Taco
1 votes for (E) Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory
This was probably one of the most difficult taste tests I’ve ever set up. All five of the aforementioned restaurants have great tamale reputations. It was hard to pit them against each other. But it had to be done.
Luna’s won with four votes because of its moist masa texture, wrapped around tender pork that was clearly infused with spices. As soon as people ate Luna’s, their heads would start nodding. And no wonder. When I arrived at Luna’s this morning (promptly at 9:30 a.m.), they told me 20 dozen tamales had already been sold. They make about 80-100 dozen tamales per day, now through Tuesday, and it’s first-come, first-served. If you order ahead of time, you must bring your confirmation number. They’re strict about that. (I experienced some chastisement this morning.) But Luna’s tamales go fast during Christmastime, and now I see why. Go early if you can. (Tip: You can also order their masa preparada if you want to make your own.)
La Victoria was interesting. The sauce it came with, according to Bradford Pearson, tasted like “ketchup.” Sort of. The masa was thick and covered a generous helping of pork that—depending on which piece you got—was either stringy or really tender. Our accounting lady, Bernadette Ramirez, who grew up in a Mexican-American household, says this is the most traditional tamale out of all five. This is the one she would buy, if her grandma didn’t make such good ones already.
Bernadette also pointed out that Urban Taco’s was the least traditional, without knowing where it came from. (Thank you, Markus Pineyro, for giving us these tamales for the taste test!) These cochinita pibil tamales were made with fresh citrus juices and achiote. Everyone who tasted something fruity was on to something. The masa dough, which was definitely thicker/puffier/fluffier than the other tamales, isn’t what you see all the time. But, hey, Urban Taco is a “Modern Mexican Kitchen.” They can do what they want, when they want. If you’re hankering for some of these pretty tamales (they’re packaged in a green-and-red, gift-ready box), Urban Taco’s “12 Days of Tamales” is still going on. Order 24-hours ahead, and you can get a dozen for $16.95. It comes with all kinds of fun sauces.
La Popular Tamale House’s tamales were the smallest and seemed the most squished, too. Maybe it’s the way they packed them. The salsa that came with it, though, was great. I don’t know what is in that salsa verde, but I’d like to drink it.