Editor’s note: Thanks to our former Mexican-in-Chief, this list started all the way back in 2011, if not earlier. We just keep adding to it over the years
The stand gets hectic on weekend mornings, when residents are looking to buy a dozen tamales and a hot cafecito for the walk home. No matter the day, you’ll want to get up early to snag Ruby’s signature ranchera tamales wrapped in banana leaves; the masa is moist and spongy and filled with savory pork in a red chile sauce. Another favorite is the guajolota (torta de tamal), which features your choice of tamale inside a bolillo; this Mexico City masterpiece also sells out quickly. In front of Northgate Market, Fourth and Mortimer streets, Santa Ana.
We need to give a shout-out to our Salvadoran cousins for their soft, pillowy tamales, and fewer places are better to buy them than the legendary El Chinaco. You should always support this Salvi spot above all others, in honor of owner Mirna Burciaga’s stance against anti-Mexican loons the past decade. 560 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8632; www.elchinaco.com.
La Vegana Mexicana
On Nov. 3, 2017, La Vegana Mexicana set up shop for the first time at Noche de Altares in Downtown Santa Ana. Though the owners had been crafting and perfecting their tamale recipe for two years prior, last year’s Noche de Altares changed everything: They saw there was a major need for plant-based, culturally appropriate Mexican food. When ordering your dozen tamales (the required minimum), be sure to get the savory mushroom-and-guajillo-sauce version and the guava one. 303 W Palm Ave, Orange; www.laveganamexicana.com.
The legendary Cambodian doughnut spot sells chicken tamales big enough to use as mortar—but delicious enough to eat. 13016 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 539-6995.
Sarinana’s Tamale Factory
OC’s oldest-standing Mexican restaurant (since 1936!) has perfected the art of making tamales rojos. There’s a reason why it sells tamales year-round, and it’s not because it’s the only Spanish word Chicanos know how to say. . . . 2216 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-8650.
Las Brisas de Apatzingan
Here you’ll find the best regional style of tamale—the uchepo. Small, super-sweet (but not dessert!) tamales from Michoacán, they are sold year-round but are always a delight to buy during the holidays, especially when you put them in front of non-michoacano Mexicans who think they’re the most paisa people since Chalino Sanchez but don’t know shit. 1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-5584.
La Poblana Bakery
Of all the mass producers of tamales in Orange County, this is the one that always calls to us, and not just because its strawberry tamales are things of legend. Perhaps it’s because La Poblana remains strong in the face of Chapman University gentrification and the continuing frat transformation of Old Towne Orange. It’s as fine a tamale factory as any in OC. Don’t forget the champurrado! 604 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 771-4465.
Cynthia Rebolledo covers anything and everything food, culture and spirits.