In Search of the Best Tamale

by on December 23, 2020 · 7 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Judi Curry

Many years ago I worked with a teacher named GiGi that taught Office Skills to our Job Corps Students.  GiGi was outgoing, fun to be with, and about 45 years old.  One year she invited about 15 of our staff members to her home in Tijuana to make tamales for Christmas.  I am pretty sure that none of us had ever made tamales before – and I am almost willing to bet that none of have made them since!

I wish I had pictures of the scene, but I will do my best to recreate it for you.  When we walked into her huge living room/ dining room, we found that she had prepared different fillings for the tamales – pork, chicken, fruit – for a typical Christmas tamale – cheese and beef. Imagine seeing all of these in huge pans on 10 long tables in her house!

Additionally there were stacks and stacks of corn husks; string ties; wax paper, and bowls and bowls of masa.  And … ready for this . . .10 gallons of tequila! Oh yes, don’t forget the multitude of shot glasses all over the tables too!

Always the teacher, GiGi explained to us that we would be working as a “production line”.  We would start by taking a corn husk and filling it with masa; then we would take a quick sip of tequila and move on to the next step of putting the filling onto the masa and corn husk. Then we would take another sip of the tequila before tying the ends of the husks.  Finally we would put them in the waxed paper, put them in the big steamer pots around the room, and take another sip of tequila.

We would continue doing this until we had made 500 tamales. (She would be donating them to the orphanage later on.)

We started, very tentatively, and I can still see the faces of my staff taking that first sip of tequila. And the second.  By the time we finished the 500 tamales, we could not tie the ends of the tamales; the tamales in the waxed paper looked like it had thrown together from 20 feet away, and we were all so pleased with ourselves for helping with the “donation.”

This took place on a Friday evening, and it took me until Monday morning to get rid of the headache that followed my every movement.  (Oh yes – GiGi had arranged for a bus to take us to her house – and then deliver us to our own homes later.) She was a hell of a good teacher!

So after talking to my friend Mary and telling her about this experience, we both wanted tamales for Christmas and I started by search.  I am not going to mention the places I went, because I would not recommend them – not because they were not good – but because they didn’t fit the taste I was looking for.  For example, one of the places Mary and I tried had wrapped their tamale in banana leaves. Now maybe under different circumstances it would have been ok, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

And, surprisingly, it wasn’t a restaurant that had the best tamales – it was “Marissa’s Deli” in the Stumps Market. (3770 Voltaire St., San Diego, 92107 – 619-226-9575).  And what a variety she was offering – pork, beef, cheese, chicken, etc.  I knew that Marissa and her crew were “hand-making” the tamales, because they have every year but I never realized just how good they were.

The carne was a little spicy but tasted authentic, not “gringoized”.  The cheese was wonderful – and I have to say I was surprised because I am not real fond of cheese tamales.  The chicken almost melted in my mouth, and I will have the pork tonight.  Mary had the chicken tonight and she said it was “tummlicious.”  So…if you are looking for a good tamale, try Marissa’s. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.  I know that she was taking orders, but I noticed some in the display case when I picked up the dozen I ordered.  Don’t wait too long.  Christmas is very, very close!

Hmmmm.  I wonder if they used tequila too!  Happy Holidays

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Judi Curry December 23, 2020 at 1:05 pm

Should have mentioned how easy it is to heat the tamale – just steam on the stove for 15 minutes. That is all it takes!


Akwhitty December 23, 2020 at 4:13 pm

Los quatro milpas.
National city.


Geoff Page December 23, 2020 at 5:36 pm

Ah yes, Los Quatro Milpas, a San Diego tradition. No one can call themselves a real San Diegan if they haven’t tried the place at least one time.


Chris December 23, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Yes they are great, but they are in Barrio Logan, not National City.


Stu December 24, 2020 at 9:05 am

I am off to Stumps for the Tamales. Maybe some tequila to just to make it more authentic
Thanks Merry Christmas


Judi Curry December 24, 2020 at 12:21 pm

If you bought the tequila stop by and share!


Judi Curry December 29, 2020 at 4:09 pm

I just bought the last 6 tamales! I’m gonna horde them! (Oh yeah – I have the tequila too!)
Happy New Year.


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