Tuesday, February 14, 2012

February: Tamal Festival at La Sandia (Santa Monica)

"Tamal." It's a Mayan word meaning ‘wrapped’. This traditional Latin American dish is also one of my favorites, made of masa (usually stuffed with chicken, pork, or cheese) then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed.

Apparently, Mexican tradition states that on Dia de Reyes (Day of the Kings), people partake on special bread which may contain a hidden doll. Just like King Cakes in New Orleans tradition, the person who gets the doll hosts a party! In the Mexican tradition, this party is a Tamal Party in February. Well, seems like Richard Sandoval found the doll, since he is holding a Tamal Festival throughout February at La Sandia.

During this Tamal Festival, Sandoval explores the diverse regional varieties of tamales throughout Mexico. I was invited to a media tasting recently and, as it turns out, there are way more tamale variations that I had anticipated, and they go way beyond the stuffing and the salsa!

Kumquat Cocktail
While waiting for the others to arrive, we were served a refreshing (and strong) welcome cocktail made with kumquats and prosecco.

Chips were served with a freshly made guacamole served in a moljacete. I enjoyed the guacamole so much I didn't want them to take it away. But I suppose I should save room for the dinner.
Our first course is good indication just how creatively they have used tamal in Mexico (just a note, we got tasting size portions during this dinner, not the full size you will get when you order):
Torta de Tamal Mexico City
Mexico City style sandwich, chicken tamale, lettuce, tomato, onion, chipotle aioli, salsa verde
Tamal Torta
Yep, carbs sandwiched in carbs! I liked the buns which were almost like biscuits, but lighter. I had thought this might be bland with both buns and corn masa tamal, but there was enough shredded chicken inside the tamal and it was pretty flavorful with the chipotle aioli.

The tamales we had next look more familiar.
To the left is the Tamales Fritos Toluca, fried chicken tamal with with tomatillo salsa.
To the right is Tamal de Frijol con Queso stuffed with bean and cheese and topped with entomatada salsa and poblano crema
The tamales on the left are orange because the masa was soaked in chile beforehand. I like meats in my tamale so I naturally preferred this one, which I also thought had stronger flavors than the bean tamale.

We also had the two special cocktails they are serving during the Tamal Festival ($8.95 each):
Pomegranate Margarita with blanco tequila, pomegranate puree, citrus, and Passionfruit Mexican Mojito
with blanco tequila, passion fruit, mint, lime, citrus
La Sandia cocktails
Once again, the drinks were sweet which makes it so easy to go down, but they are pretty strong. I preferred the Passionfruit "Mojito".

On the next platter came a chile relleno stuffed with tamal, and a pork tamal wrapped in banana leaves.
Chile Relleno de Tamal Durango
stuffed chile poblano with chicken tamal, chihuahua cheese, salsa jalisco, crema fresca, cotija
Not stuffed tamale, but stuffed with tamale.

Pork Tamal Estilo Oaxaca
pork tamal in banana leaves, mole (and normally served with charro beans, pibil rice, plantains, and salsa fresca)
Pork Tamale
When I read "pork tamal" I was expecting a tamale stuffed with shredded pork, but this is even better. A layer of tamal is topped with a big slab of tender pork! I like the banana leaf-wrapped tamale better too, as it was more moist than the others.

Tamal de Pescado a la Campeche ($19.95). This is a mahi mahi tamal in banana leaves, epazote, tomato, masa, serrano, cilantro, plantains, grilled yellow squash. The banana leaf is already opened when the dish is served in the molcajete.
In the middle of the molcajete are pieces of tamal and mahi mahi dressed in spicy green salsa. I really liked this dish, but alas the serrano made it a bit too spicy for me to eat a lot of.

For desserts, sweet tamales, of course! (and churros)
Tamales de Dulce (sweet corn tamales topped with crema dulce, raisins, and café de hoya)
Sweet Tamale
The sweet corn tamale is perfect for someone who preferred their desserts to be only lightly sweet. For the sweet tooths, the churros will hit the spot better.

This tasting was such a pleasant surprise as I got to learn more about just how diverse regional Mexican cuisine is. Even their tamale specialties are wildly different from one region to the next!
The Tamal Festival menu is available throughout February at La Sandia. You can view the full menu here.



Nice, thanks for the post Fiona. I never heard of the place but like their attempt to define regional variations on Mexican tamales :)

I wonder how Mercado will stack up next to them?

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