Reyna Maldonado’s mother Ofelia Barajas is making sweet tamales this year during the holiday season at La Guerrera’s Kitchen. “It’s really, really rare to find sweet tamales,” Maldonado says. For people who are used to spicy tamales, she likens their assortment of strawberry, pineapple and brown sugar ones to dessert. Starting on Nov. 1, both the sweet and the savory tamales will be available for pre-order. They’ve also added a vegan option—calabacitas—which contains squash, corn, tomatoes and peppers.
Although La Guerrera’s Fruitvale storefront closed in March, they’ve been selling tamales on the weekends out of Ale Industries on nearby E. 10th Street. The pandemic has certainly cut down their sales, but it wasn’t Covid-19 that forced them out of the space now occupied by Ruby Q Smoke Fusion. Maldonado says that they were already looking for a bigger location. Without being able to confirm an exact address, La Guerrera’s Kitchen might be in a new brick-and-mortar location in time for the holiday season.
Barajas grew up in the Mexican state of Guerrero before moving to the Mission district in San Francisco with her daughter. Maldonado’s mother was a street vendor for 15 years in the city before being accepted into the Bay Area business incubator program La Cocina. In Guerrero, the tamales cooked in corn husks are traditionally stuffed with different meats, vegetables and cheese. Maldonado explains that, “the texture of that tamale is fluffy.” The ones cooked in banana leaves are firmer. La Guerrera stuffs that variation with pork and a salsa roja, or red sauce. All of them are made in-house with corn masa.
You can also freeze their tamales and re-steam them later. “We’ll be making a video tutorial on how to re-steam tamales, and then also different ways to eat them, like grilling them to create a smoky tamale,” Maldonado says.
At Jim Maser’s Picante in Berkeley, they’re offering a holiday tamale menu in time for Christmas. Maser writes on the restaurant website, “And while the dishes at Picante may not be coming from some grandmother’s kitchen in Mexico, the reactions I get tell me it’s pretty close.” He says the recipes are all from his mentor, Diana Kennedy’s, cookbooks. But the person in charge of executing the tamale menu, Patricia Oliveras, grew up in Michoacán, Mexico.
Oliveras started her job in the Picante kitchen 14 years ago. After she arrived, Maser added tamales to the menu. She began making them when she was a child.
“We made them in my grandmother’s kitchen,” she says, indicating a degree of authenticity that Maser doesn’t claim for himself. “My grandmother cooked everything in clay pots in her kitchen, on an open, wood-burning stove. She cooked the stews in the clay pots and cooked the tamales in the steamers.”
In her household, having a tamale dinner on Christmas is a tradition.
“In my family, which is about 15 people, on December 24, around 8 or 9 at night, we all sit down, and in the middle we have our plate of tamales and eat them together,” Oliveras says.
You can order holiday tamales from Picante until Dec. 22, and pick them up on Dec. 23 or 24. Oliveras and her team make and then sell approximately 5,000 tamales in two days. Since they’re presold, they know exactly how many need to be made. After making so many tamales in such a short period of time, how do her hands feel? She answered the question and then laughed, “They are good—with the aroma of tamales.”
The production process is similar to the way she made them with her grandmother but, she says, “in Mexico you mixed all of the masa by hand.” For cooks tempted to try making tamales at home, Oliveras described the way she makes the masa. “First we mix the shortening, adding in salt and we add baking powder to soften the shortening,” she explained. Then she stirs in the masa, followed by some broth. She leaves those ingredients together for about 20 minutes until the masa becomes smooth. “When you’re ready to spread the masa, you want it spread in the center of the leaf, so that when they are ready to eat, the tamales don’t stick to the leaves.”
Sold by the dozen, Picante is offering five tamale flavors this year. Two—Rajas con Queso and Chicken Verde—are only available during the holidays. When you pick them up, the tamales will be wrapped and chilled, with reheating instructions.
Scott Carroll conducted the interview with Patricia Oliveras in Spanish and subsequently translated their conversation into English.
La Guerrera’s Kitchen, open Friday-Sunday noon–3pm, Ale Industries 3096 E. 10th St., Oakland, 510.424.8577. laguerreraskitchen.com
Picante, open Monday-Sunday 11am–8pm, 1328 Sixth St, Berkeley, 510.525.3121. picanteberkeley.com