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CHOW Tour: North America: Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

North America Dispatch #68: Vacation Tamales

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

A hearty south-of-the-border “Hola” from here in sunny Mexico, where, resplendent in cheap sunglasses, I’m about to hunker down for a vacation week spent entirely prone on sand.

CHOW Tour’s over. But, as I said in the previous report, the CHOW Tour’s never over. So while my destination is the village of Sayulita (a vacation-from-chowhounding wonderland, in that none of the food’s bad, yet none is great), I can’t resist a bit of chowconnaissance on my way in from Puerto Vallarta. And since I have my camera along … well, you know.

So here we are again: you, me, and my food. But remember, I’m on vacation. It’s not my job to be reporting this. The following tamales are entirely from the goodness of my heart.

But my heart’s nowhere near as deep as that of Maria Candela. My lord. Did I ever really have tamales before? These are so much more vivid. I am moved, I am dumbfounded.

I was told to visit María Candelaria Tamales Artesanales (Guadalupe Sánchez no 851, Col. Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; 322-222-4603), which seems to be situated in Maria’s house. In the back, an eclectic assortment of vagabonds, hangers on, eager gringo intern girls, and grim masa wraiths sit at a long table, turning out tamales to feed an army. Yet I am the only customer seated in Maria’s parlor, eating this stirring food with the heightened emotional blaze and aroused flaring nostrils of a telenovela character. Keep the interns safely away, madam; the blood boils and I am not in full control of my bestial impulses.

Vacation means not having to focus the camera.

In front: the stunning tamal de costillita de cerdo (pork rib). In back: the blessed Oaxacan tamal (chicken with homemade mole negro).

The blessed Oaxacan tamal torn asunder to reveal its copious inner treasures.

Unthinkably soulful hot sauce. Would drink it down if it weren’t so scorching. May drink it down anyway.

Agua fresca. An entire two-week beach vacation in a ceramic mug. Impossibly tangy, frothy, fresh. Perfect sweetness.

Smutty leering close-up of the stunning tamal de costillita de cerdo.

I’ve called for more tamales. This time, Salvadoran tamal (with black beans, crema, and queso).

I finally understand crema. Not sour cream. Not runny white gook. This is a proud and distinct thing. I get it now.

I am not worthy of this tamal. Nor are you worthy to look at it. Don’t you dare click.

English menu.


Spanish menu.

I would feel unbearably regal, a Little Lord Fauntleroy relishing his edible riches in the silent, colorful parlor while squadrons of faceless serfs pound masa below, desperately trying to keep pace with my decadent consumption. Except it’s not like that. Maria is a gracious hostess, but it’s abundantly clear who’s got the power.

+ + +

We think of Puerto Vallarta as nothing but gringos on a beach. María Candelaria, as authentic and pure an oasis of Mexican culture as one can hope for, is only a couple of blocks from the beach. Once again, treasure is ripe for the picking even in unlikely places … so long as you’re willing to ferret it out!

Also great: Marisma Fish Tacos, an outdoor stand staffed entirely by Amazonian women who craft godhead fish and shrimp tacos in the middle of Naranjo Street, between Basilio Badillo and V. Carranza, near the exit of a tunnel.

There’s one place I spotted but didn’t get to try: great-looking spinning chickens in a nameless corner stand right near a very big, old, famous-seeming cigar store north of Marisma Fish Tacos (just barely up in the main section of Puerto Vallarta).

+ + +

Sorry, but you can’t come with me to Sayulita. I will be, as I said, prone in sand. Not a posture lending itself to incisive reporting. However, I’ve tossed you the following relic, a video shot of some unfathomable religious event that went down one night in the town square. Don’t expect much to happen (though there are some moments). Just soak up the flavor and the music: Movie file.


So now you can make a porn calendar with a different gorgeous tamale pic for each month. The fantasies those tamale photos pictures are giving me are down right embarrassing. Jim, you oughta be ashamed while you are lying there on the playa! Gracias for the best food porn ever amigo !

*Drool*....There is a similar style restaurant in LA called Mamas Hot Tamales cafe featuring tamales from across Latin America.

A few questions:
The salsa you have pictured looks nearly identical to one I recently tried in San Diego - it was Dried Salsa Morita and Tahini based. Do you know the ingredients of this one by chance?

Was the Agua Fresca Horchata?

Did the Costilla de Cerdo Tamal include the rib bone? (AsI have experienced quite a few Chicken bones in my Pollo Tamales.) Do you know which region of Mexico this Tamal originates from?
The Masa for this tamal looks like masa cocido, a tyle typical of the S. Mexican states, but has the corn husk?

You didn't happen to sample or see the Chiapeneco tamal - did you? The cuisine of this far southern Mexican state is the most intriguing of all to me and I would love to try one of their tamales.

How would you rate the mole for the Oaxaqueno - the menu says 'house made'?

Great Post.

I did "click" and then I whimpered. This was tough reading for someone bereft of all but the most mediocre tamales. Great report, though!

kare raisu - I've been to Mama's. While the set-up is similar, when it comes to the tamales, there's no comparison in terms of flavor and quality!

I wasn't eating analytically (it was vacation), but I'm pretty sure there were no weirdo touches in the hot sauce e.g. tahini. I don't know what Morita is. I'll say this...there was a citric sharpness that recalled Brazilian Malagueta.

They didn't have horchata. I don't think horchata could ever be described as "tangy". Mine was guava.

No rib bones. No idea of region (again, I was just eating). The masa for this one was pretty much the standard sort of coarse grain masa you find in tamales in the US...only vastly better crafted.

No Chiapeneco, no. That's from Chiapas, I'm guessing? If so, I'd imagine it'd be pretty close to Oaxacan. The cuisines of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz seem to cast pretty influential shadows, so cuisines of neighboring regions tend to show that influence.

I would rate every single bite and slurp an "11".

Its odd because the Spanish version of the menu lists the costilla as being in a salsa verde.

Chile Morita I think, is basically a Chipotle, not sure of the minute differences.

What is Malagueta?

Thanks for the reply. :)

Now I know where I want to go on vacation. And, it's nice to know I won't have to worry about focusing my camera. ;-) Seriously, fabulous report. Thank you!

kare raisu, yeah, I hadn't realized about the salsa being switched. Guess they ran out of green that day. Malagueta is a tiny, sharp, citric pepper from northern brazil (i.e. amazon). Very distinctive taste. i'm sure that's NOT what they used here, but I'm just trying to make an analogy. There's definitely some actual citrus in that hot sauce.

ok--just eat the fish Jim--wonderful with a salsa on the side and eat freshly made tortillas--what can be bad???have a few margaritas and bliss out

watch out for the sun--it's very strong--cover up and use sun screen--avoid sun poisoning at all costs--try lobster in chipotle sauce--if you get to Playa Azul--nothing there but a lovely restaurant on the beach and some pigs running around the town--also they sell lovely horchata there too--and don't forget to have those lovely palatas (ice creams on a stick--many flavors-I like the peanut one--life is good-wish I was there-it's freezing here in NYC today-with wind--very uncomfortable--enjoy Mexico-avoid Lazeras Cardenas (sp??) worst place on earth-town next to Playa Azul-

the horchatas I drank all over Mexico were the creany version flavored with cinnamin and nutmeg-never heard of the guava variety--in Cancun town at the Mercado-have the jugo jamaica--lovely and refreshing in the heat-


I didn't click on that last tamale because you said not to, but I really want to click!


go to the next town down from sayulita. it is called san pablo or san francisco. much cooler vibe than sayulita. I bought red snapper from local fishermen to grill. but the real reason is a restaurant across the street from the hospital. great tacos, quesadillas. local hospital workers eating there. what more do you want. breakfast and lunch only I believe. check it out.


Sayulita is a great place, but don't go swimming in the ocean on a day that it rains, as there will be sewage in the water and you will get sick.


Chile Morita is a Jalapeno that is dried but not smoked... characterized by its reddish color.

A Chile Meco or Chipotle is a Jalapeno that is smoked... characterized by a brownish color.

Cuisine of Chiapas is not particularly like Oaxacan... it almost belongs in Central America as there is a sharp diversion away from spicy food.

It shares a lot in common with Guatemalan cuisine but also has its unique vibe. I agree with Kare... it is a very intriguing cuisine for the sophisticated use of spice & herbs... you have to be familiar with Mexican cuisine for a long time to get over Oaxacan, Pueblan, Yucatecan etc., before you can get to appreciating the cuisine of Chiapas, Tlaxcala, Mexico State and Hidalgo etc.,

One other thing... I would say Oaxacan, Veracruz & Pueblan cuisines have been discovered in Mexico City and by foreign tourists... I really doubt that they cast an influential shadow over their neighbors.

If their is something that characterizes Mexican regional cuisine is the pride of independence, uniqueness and a 6,000 year culinary history. Many people who first learn about Oaxacan cuisine will then go to another state, find something similar and then assume that state is influenced by Oaxaca.... this is far from reality. You really have to know Mexican history and cuisine to begin to understand where things originate etc.,

Well, I'm glad to see the interest in Mexican food. Hopefully, when my wife (she's from Veracruz) and I open up our tamale kitchen on O'ahu some people might actually be interesting in eating them rather than the typical ones sold around O'ahu made from flour rather than real Nixtamal.

One comment, agua fresca or agua de fruta is made with water and any available fruit be it Lemon (lime in the US) or guava. And well Horchata is made with water and rice along with cinnamin and what ever might seem to go with it.

I here everyone talk about comparing Oaxacan or Pueblan cuisine, but I would surmise that identifying just by state is misleading. Take Veracruz, in the north you have the Huasteca where the Huasteca people live. Amongst them you will find nahua and otomi speaking peoples. Here the music is often played with a violin. In the middle of the state there is Totonacapan, home to the Totonacan indians who domesticated Vainilla and are famous for the flying dancers.

South of them you have the sierra of Zongolica home to a nahua speaking people mixed in with some Popoloca and Mazatecans. It was once considered amoung the poorest places in Mexico. On the highest reaches of this sierra it snows. On the bottom lands it is tropical and hot and rainy most of the year.

Then to the south of Veracruz you have Mixe (said to be decendents of the Olmecans, who made the large stone heads [but, they don't claim that]) and other nahua speaking people.

Just north of Zongolica you have a town called Yanga which was the first liberated slave town in the Americas. Yanga along with much of the coast of Veracruz has African influences. They say that the natives there speak Spanish similar to the cubans. And then you have Spanish influences all over the place. Especially, in Veracruz where Cortes first landed.

Then you have an altitudinal gradient that goes from Mt. Orizaba the largest Volcano if not mountain in North America and with a peak that is covered with snow for most of the year--along with other mountainous places where you will find snow in the winter-- to the ocean, which affects the types of plants you have available to use for food. Also, naturally along the coast they eat lots of seafood, while in the mountains they don't.

In other words, the Veracruz Huastecan food probably has much more in common with the San Luis Potosi or Hildalgo Huastecan food than it does with food fo the port of Veracruz or that of Zongolica. In Zongolica, Hoja santa (The leave of a certain type of pepper plant[as in black, not chile pepper] used as a spice) is popular as it is in Northern Oaxaca, but I didn't see hoja santa in a single recipe of the Recetario nahua del norte de Veracruz published by Conaculta (which surprised me.) Using Spanish divisions only serves to confuse people. Outside of Veracruz people call Veracruzanos Jarochos (which actually one time referred to the color of the skin of the people there. They said there skin looked like the color of the Jarro, black. But, in Veracruz a Jarocho is someone from the port only. If you are from the Huasteco you are not Jarocho.

As for the last comment: For those that don't know, those from Mexico City are often called Chilangos, which depending on who you ask refers to mixing of chiles from other places--as most people from Mexico City come from other places. And someone originally from Oaxaca might open up there own his own restaurant there and may very well serve traditional Oaxacan food, what ever that is. And well obviously as much as there are differences there are many similarities as well. Most, but not all people in Mexico eat tortillas, beans, and chiles. What changes is the types of chiles, beans, and tortilla and how they cook them. David

So, the Bay Area. Best tamales? A year ago a woman in the Trader Joe's parking lot approached me with her cart and I bought a few. Best ever, that I've tried, in the area. Damn if I didn't get her number. Very traditional type, but your review from Puerto Vallarta is amazing. Anything even approaching this in the Bay Area?

Dan, I think you may have run into the Tamale Lady. she usually hits the mission with her cart and stops in at bars to sell her tamales. they amazing.

guys, the best way I know to gather food tips (e.g. great local tamales) is to use the Chowhound.com message boards. Ask the hounds in SF at: http://www.chowhound.com/boards/1

You won't find tamales like that, but there are very very good ones to be had.

Oh to be in your shoes!!!

Next best thing seems like this Taste of Tamales by the Bay I've noticed just got posted - happening in SF. Is anyone going? Looks like they'll have some pretty good stuff - Oaxacan, Yucatan and Salvadorean....
I think it's at Fort Mason Center.
I'm gonna try to carve out some time to check out what they've got

Somebody has to go in case I can't make it and report back!! dying to know what SF has!

Hey Olivia,

Does this lady hang out any othe places? Any place you can recommend other than the lady? Do you have any other ideas for good tamales in SF? I'm hoping this Tamale event in SF will have some good 'fixed' places - not the hit or miss tamales. do any of the tamales sound familiar?

if you check out this taste of tamales by the bay, you gotta tell us what delights you find.

Zeitgeist-Tamale Lady The Tamale Lady (a.k.a. Ms. Virginia Ramos) carries her wares through many, many bars, it's true, but the Zeitgeist is the bar that throws her a birthday party every year, so it gets the honors. 2 a.m., Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia, S.F. (415) 255-7505. Tamale Lady, various places but always at Zeitgeist after 6 p.m.

So jealous of your tamale feasting!

Salvadoran Tamal? That is a typical Tamal Oaxaqueno, wrapped with banana leafs. The Salvadorans and other Central Americans (I don't know South American food) have similar tamales. I've even seen similar "tamales" made by Chinese here in Canada (I've never tried them). Next time I'll ask the nice owner of a Chinese supermarket here in Ottawa, he is always very helpful. We Mexicans have so many influences from different cuisines. I see the Middle Eastern influence, etc etc.

Callejero, that's how the place labeled it. And don't Oaxacans use corn husk rather than banana leaf to wrap?

Agreed on the influences in Mexican cuisine...they're underappreciated! Al Pastor is, of course, Lebanese, just as queso fundido is German, and don't get me started on tacos arabes.....

Maria Candelaria is amust for anyone going to vallarta
3 of us ate dinner there in november for about 15 american with tip

Marisma fish taco is my morning delight after i have gotten some fresh squeezed juice at the fruit market

too bad you did not get to any of tamales vicky little stores

she sells 3 types puerco, pollo and rajas

all of them are delicious

in addition to the storefronts, vicky herself can be found by the church on sunday selling her tamales