When my grandmother arrived in Mexico from the United States, she thought tamales grew on trees.
Wrapped in banana leaves and corn husks, the traditional Mexican tamal may not grow on trees, but while its popularity inspires fusion cuisine, the dish continues to be an important part of Mexican and Latin American heritage.
The Christmas holidays inspire a string of parties stretching across three weeks in December when more tamales will be enjoyed than any other time of the year.
After exploring some of San Francisco’s top places to get tamales, I discovered that the best-tasting and most popular tamal makers are turning to organic maza. The tamal is getting healthier and it is here to stay.
While populations of Latinos across the continent (and in some nooks around the world) celebrate Las Posadas, Christmas, and the New Year, it is common knowledge across all generations that a party is hardly complete without tamales.
“I can’t imagine Christmas without my tamales,” says Maria Garcia, who stands in line at La Palma Mexicatessen in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Bags of tortilla chips are stacked one atop another, creating a wall between customers, steaming food, and attentive staff. Lines swell behind the fresh tortilla counter, while women with thick, black, pinned-up hair pat dough between their hands to shape it into rounds before placing them on the comal.
“We are currently ordering 2,200 pounds of organic maiz twice a week to fill the local demand for tamales and tortillas,” says Mario Castano, son of the family who owns La Palma.
La Palma is the go-to place for Mexican ingredients, such as Mexican cheeses, banana leaves, corn husks, and specialized masas (dough), including masa azul, masa dulce de fresa, and masa de nopal for making your own tortillas, tamales, and atole.
While red and green Christmas lights shaped like chiles decorate the inside of La Palma Mexicatessen, customers greet each other with abrazos, catch up on family tidbits, and try to stay warm as the line of people waiting to buy tamales stretches down the sidewalk under a sequence of papel picado.
According to Castano, the store expects to sell fifty thousand tamales over a three-week period—more than at any other time of year.
“What else would people do at Christmas if they did not have tamales to celebrate with?” asks Castano.
Just a block away, at the corner of 24th and York streets, a large sign advertises the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, a treat for foodies willing to seek such treasures. Here, those who read menus before they enter and who do not mind deviating from the beaten path of trendier streets will be highly rewarded.
The latest menu of this decade-old establishment, created by current co-owners Aaron Presbrey and Barry Moore, offers fresh approaches to centuries-old dishes. One of the specialties is the chiva tamal which introduces a combination of caramelized squash, yams, and goat cheese topped with tomatillo sauce and crema Mexicana.
Attaining its ingredients from La Palma Mexicatessen, the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor makes all of its tamales in-house from freshly ground organic products
According to Presbrey, tamales become more popular at this time of the year:
“We sell large to-go orders and will get about sixty to seventy orders throughout the season.”
Cactus and Christmas garlands decorate this contemporary Mexican experience, which is enhanced by the, comforting rose-colored wood, and thoughtful staff. For treasure-hunters, a true golden find is the round tamal made with chicken, beef, or pork and served with house-made gravy and cheese.
While the round tamal may not be the latest dernier cri, it showcases the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor as a brilliant example of an establishment that is passionate about food and culture, housed in a historic building that is important to the community, and rich in flavors and creative techniques.
If celebrating with tamales runs in your family and you don’t have time to knead the dough the Roosavelt Tamale Parlor may be for you.
A few blocks away, on Mission Street, an image of a Latin American virgen graces the sign of Gracias Madre Restaurant, where Mexican veggie chic meets the healthy requirements of local San Franciscans, and a fine balance of modern decor with authentic talavera details appeals to those willing to tip a mariachi or two strumming guitars outside.
The menu offers creative veggie alternatives to authentic Mexican recipes. Here, diverse healthy foodies enjoy tamales all year long.
According to Rodrigo Garcia, manager at Gracias Madre, customers eat tamales all year and he does not see a spike in sales. . Garcia, who is from the Mexican state of Yucatán, explains that his customers are from all diverse backgrounds and they enjoy tamales all year.
“Tamales are always the most popular item on the menu after enchiladas,” says Garcia.
Made with stoneground heirloom masa and steamed in a husk filled with butternut squash, onions, and tomato sauce, this tamal delivers an elevating experience.
While Mexican cuisine and tamal fans turn to organic maiz and vegetarian recipes in San Francisco tamales are becoming healthier – they might as well grow on trees.