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“Do not get the tamales” is a phrase my mother said to me. Likely more than once. And I’m not sure if my mom, who taught Spanish and has visited Mexico a fair bit, was entirely anti-tamale on principle or if she just thought the tamales at our go-to Tex-Mex restaurant (the long-dead Pepe’s on Broadway in Edmond) were terrible.
Regardless, I did what my mom said. Had I kept that up as I got older, she might like me a lot more now. But the point is this: I took a long, long time to start eating tamales.
And I’ve got a lot of ground to make up.
See, there are several kinds of tamales, including canned tamales. And if those are the only tamales you’ve ever eaten, I am incredibly surprised you are a) reading this feature and b) still alive.
I’ve had some very good tamales and I’ve had some pretty horrendous tamales, but the bad ones were never bad enough to keep me from trying more, because the good ones...whoa. Like
If you’ve never ever had a tamale of any sort, let me tell you what we’re looking for:
Tamales are made by packing masa and a filling (usually pork, chicken, or cheese) into an empty corn husk or banana leaf and then steaming them. The heat cooks the masa into a semi-solid corn shell hiding a core of delicious filling.
You can eat them on a plate with a knife and fork or in your hand, like a hot, solid little burrito. They can be covered in sauce or served plain. You can do a lot with tamales, but making tamales is a lot of work. In many cultures, tamales are reserved for special occasions, simply because there’s too much prep work involved for them to be an any-time dinner.
Which is one reason I’m so enamoured with the local tamale makers. Their tireless work means tamales can always be on the menu. If you’ve yet to try a good one, or if you’re just craving the best OKC has to offer, I have some places for you to visit.
Tamales El Patio
3421 SW 29th St., Oklahoma City
It’s not a coincidence that this round-up is sponsored by the Oklahoma Pork Council. The best tamales are the pork ones. My buddy Bridget once questioned me on the quality of tamales from Tamales El Patio.
Bring cash, because they don’t take cards. Grab some napkins, too, because if you try to eat one of these on the way home, you’re going to make a mess. A delicious mess that no one who has eaten one of these tamales would blame you for making.
There’s only one address for Molly’s and it’s the Facebook page listed above. Molly’s (formerly Rasta Molly’s) makes some killer tamales which they sell at bars, rock shows, parties, etc. You can order tamales from Molly’s, which I think is a pretty swell idea for people like me who generally are not at a bar, rock show, or party late enough for the tamales to arrive. Also, it’s the only way to guarantee you get one, which is kind of important. The varieties are all great: pork, chicken, jalepeno cream cheese for vegetarians and black bean-filled tamales for vegans...or people who like black beans.
1492 New World Cuisine
1207 N. Walker Ave., OKC
At 1492, guests can experience two wildly different styles of tamale. This pan-Latin menu includes a deconstructed tamale, with a base of masa covered in seafood mix (shrimp, scallops, and crab) and a chipotle cream sauce. There’s also a more traditional version, with the masa on the outside and pork on the inside, available with their Tex-Mex combos. Tamales for all seasons!
La Oaxaquena Bakery & Restaurant
741 SW 29th St., OKC
Part bakery (or panaderia) and part restaurant, La Oaxaquena (pronounced wah-ka-hay-na...I think) is a southside mainstay with a menu that goes beyond what you find in many taquerias. Their focus on southern Mexican cuisine (Oaxaca is down near-ish Guatemala) brings us Tamal Oaxaqueno—cooked in a banana leaf and served with a mole sauce. For an upcharge, you can switch it to a slightly more complicated chocolate mole sauce, which is definitely worth a couple of bucks, even just to try.
6700 NW 39th Expressway, Bethany
If there’s one problem with the tamales at Birrieria Diaz, it’s that they aren’t birria—the deeply spiced lamb broth with flecks of stewed meat that I liken to a Mexican version of pho. But on the off chance you’re not in the mood for some of the best broth on Earth, the Tamales Mexicanos are a great choice. They’re not quite as tender as the ones you’ll find at Tamales El Patio, but they’re big and very tasty.
Though they require a lot of planning and prep work, the actual cooking of tamales isn’t all that complex, which might be one reason Nick’s Tamales jumped into the local food truck market. With “jumbo” half-pound tamales stuffed with your choice of pork, beef, or chicken and cheese, Nick’s is really pushing the tamales from the kitchen to the street. They usually come with a side of salsa, but you can get them “loaded” with sour cream, guacamole, black bean sauce, shredded cheese, and more for a slight upcharge.
3838 N. Lincoln Blvd, OKC
I love Taco Rico for several reasons, not the least of which is the restaurant is clearly in an old Taco Bueno with a lot of crossover from Taco Bueno’s menu. But when you get away from the “Chamaco” and its ilk, you’ll find things like queso-smothered pork tamales alongside street tacos and other taqueria fare. I am pretty devoted to my regular order of rice and beans, two tamales and a big splash of queso. It’s cheaper than it has any right to be and more satisfying than your usual fast food Mexican lunch.
Juan Del Fuego
223 34th Ave. SW, Norman
Move over, steak and eggs, because there’s a new breakfast king in town and it’s the tamales and eggs at Juan Del Fuego. You’ll have a hard time ordering anything off the menu at Juan’s that isn’t spectacularly good, but these were my favorites by far.
Why? Because they go the extra mile and crisp up the tamales in the fryer before layering on your eggs and choice of red, green, or “Christmas” chili sauce. (Ho, ho, ho, I say.)
213 E. Main St., Norman
It’s not exactly a secret that the chef/owner of Juan Del Fuego came from Norman’s famed The Diner, nor is it a secret that some of the menu items are similar. The Diner’s tamale breakfast takes a slightly different tack, however, with grilled tamales served with your choice of eggs and a dousing of chili con carne with ranchero sauce and cheese. If you’ve never had tamales for breakfast before, now you can do it twice...in Norman.
Zarate’s Latin & Mexican Grill
706 S. Broadway, Edmond
Most of the tamales on this list come wrapped in a corn husk and filled with tender pork. Zarate’s version, Honduran Banana Leaf Tamales, come wrapped in—you guessed it—banana leaves. And they’re filled with tender beef. They’re also slightly more square than most tamales you’ll find, but they’re still packed with that mild masa sweetness that drives the taste buds wild. By the way, don’t unwrap both of these at once, because there’s a decent chance you’ll be taking one home for later. Filling is an understatement.
Iguana Mexican Grill
9 NW Ninth St., OKC
Under the direction of owner and chef Marc Dunham, Iguana Mexican Grill has gone both super traditional and super crowd-pleasing, using high-quality ingredients on Tex-Mex favorites as well as highlighting regional Mexican dishes that are harder to find in Oklahoma. The tamale dinner lets diners choose two pork or chicken tamales, which are served under a heavy splash of salsa verde. And while you're there splashing things, might I recommend one or several margaritas? Iguana makes great food, but the cocktail menu is just as good.
11 NE 6th Street
The newest addition to the list is El Guate, inside Parlor. Wrapped in a banana leaf, this tamale is stuffed with grilled chicken and topped with ancho chili sauce and queso fresco. Be sure to get some of the maize locos (de-cobbed elote) on the side. It's a wonderful tamale, nice and tender with a lovely filling that has a nice smoky flavor that's complemented by the ancho chili sauce. Goodness me that sauce. Owner Chris McCabe ought to be selling this by the jar.
The Oklahoma Pork Council represents the interests all of pork producers throughout the state, promoting pork and pork products, funding research and educating consumers and producers about the pork industry. Learn more about the OPC, find recipes and more at OKPork.org.