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

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

Location Info

La Mexicana

1018 Fairview, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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Carlos A. Martinez
Carlos A. Martinez

This should have been a top ten. La Mexicana Restaurant is a cultural treasure in this city with some of the best food in town.

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