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tamale
Photo: VirtualErn on Flickr

You know how we love sandwiches, right? In Mexico, all tortas and cemitas aside (well, not aside-aside), the tamale is king. It’s Mexico’s comfort food of choice, an option for all three meals of the day. There are literally a thousand ways to prepare a great tamale for any number of occasions or holidays by following the simple formula of dough, filling, corn husk, steamer. And that’s why it’s what’s for lunch.

If you gave me the choice between the most opulent dining experience offered at NYC raw fish haven Masa and a lifetime supply of masa harina, or lime-cured corn flour (the base of tamales), I’d pick the latter. And let it be known that I take extravagant sushi very, very seriously. 

Whenever I head to California to visit my folks, from the moment I step on the plane, I’m thinking about tamales. Specifically, the fare from Gourmet Tamales — Me Gusta in Ojai. They set up a cart at the farmers market every Sunday, and are the only reason I’m glad jetlag wakes me up at the tender hour of 9 a.m. instead of a more appropriate noon.

My heart thumps wildly as I gently tug the husk away. Tender, moist, packed to bursting with succulent braised pork and generously doused with homemade charred tomatillo salsa, these are the gold standard of tamales. I’ve yet to find better ones anywhere. Oh and seeing Mom and Dad is nice, too. Upon my return, I rejoin the chorus of those who have lived in Southern California and come back to New York: There is no truly great Mexican food here.  

A surprising amount of taco trucks and hole-in-the-wall Mexican spots sell tamales — you just may not be looking. And if it’s corn dough, braised meat and salsa you crave, leave the taco zone and taste what real Mexican comfort food is all about.