I pushed my fork deep into the steaming hot masa. My reward: a puff of steam and slow-cooked chicken in a tangy verde sauce.
I unfurled another tamale from its fresh-from-the-steamer corn husk and found the masa stained red from the sauce that encased a filling of slow-roasted pork.
The next visit to Los Tamales Mexican Restaurant detoured to spicy and sweet. A sweet corn tamale could’ve been dessert. Another came filled with jalapenos suspended in a river of molten queso.
Every visit found outstanding tamales at the aptly named restaurant in East Tacoma that will celebrate its first anniversary Jan. 30.
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Los Tamales is from Alma and Efren Mendoza, who operate the restaurant with daughters Palmira Diaz and Alma Mendoza, named after her mother.
The shopping mall where they operate in East Tacoma might as well be named after the family. They also own and operate the neighboring 6,000 square feet Mexican grocery store, El Jalapeno, and neighboring Tortilleria Azteca that feeds fresh, handmade tortillas to the family’s stores (another store is in Renton).
In a town already full of terrific taquerias — Taqueria El Sabor, Taqueria El Antojo, Taqueria El Grande and Vuelve a la Vida among them — Los Tamales is a standout that should be on your to-dine list.
I give it my highest recommendation not because the tamales are excellent and in abundant choices, but because after six visits spread over a year, I found this taqueria excels at the wide world of taqueria fare.
The most popular time of year for tamales is December, and this year the Mendoza family hand-made more than 10,000 the week of Christmas, said daughter Palmira. “We had a dozen people to help us,” she said. In a typical week, the family makes 1,000 tamales every two days.
At $1.99 each (or $18 a dozen), they’re a bargain and popular to buy in bulk. Many have made the restaurant a go-to tamale destination, which means it occasionally runs low. Calling ahead ensures an order.
Assembling a meal at Los Tamales is easy with the freebies. Enter the fast–casual restaurant — diners order at the counter and find their own seats — and look to the left to the condiment jackpot, a bar filled with six kinds of salsa, several curtidos (pickled vegetables), jalapenos, radishes and as many limes as one can squeeze. Diners are offered ramekins of steamy refried beans with chips.
Did I mention that most meals are accompanied by handmade corn tortillas that are grilled to order? Those are made in-house, even though the family’s tortilleria is right next door. Weekends are production days at the tortilla factory. The corn tortillas at Los Tamales must be made daily, Diaz said, because “fresh is always better.”
Los Tamales is not a fancy restaurant. One visit found a drip in the ceiling and a bucket on the floor near the salsa bar, but I can easily look past that to see a tidy and attractive dining room, flashy electronic screens displaying the menu choices, and a family concerned about the quality of food it serves at a more-than-fair price.
In the early days, there were seven choices of tamales, but the family excised two of the less popular versions: mole and corunda. When ordering, look for the day’s tamale choices on a menu taped to the front counter. Typically there are chicken tamales with red or green sauce, pork with red sauce, sweet corn and rajas, a tamale filled with cheese and jalapenos.
It doesn’t matter that this is a restaurant where you order at the counter, I found table service as excellent as restaurants that charge $3-$5 more a plate (at Los Tamales, entrees rarely hover above $10-$12). Did we want more chips? More frijoles refritos? More corn tortillas? I found it difficult to say no.
Los Tamales offers a well-rounded menu of portable Mexican eats and generous grilled meats plates built for leisurely feasts. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, ceviche, molcajete, pozole, huevos rancheros — it’s all available at Los Tamales.
Molcajete was as good as I’ve had it in Tacoma, a bubbling stone bowl brimming with grilled carne asada and halved chorizo sausage links, plump shrimp, grilled vegetables and thin wedges of queso that melted into the steaming hot chile-spiked broth ($16.99).
Chilaquiles was an outstanding version of the breakfast-ish dish built from leftovers: strips of corn tortillas coated in a verde sauce (or red), topped with an over-easy egg ($8.99). Chicken mole arrived with two slow-cooked bone-in chicken drumsticks in a rich swirl of mole that tasted like a savory chocolate gravy ($9.99). Carne asada offered a generous helping of grilled skirt steak ($11.99). Chile verde hit the winter sweet spot with an acidic green sauce pooling around slow-cooked pork ($9.99). A chile relleno plate came with a poblano dipped in batter, fried and filled with a river of cheese ($7.99). All of the above came flanked by garlic-licked refried beans and fluffy rice.
Pozole, hominy soup, was perfect cold-weather fare with its slightly spicy broth ($8.99). It’s a daily offering along with menudo.
Don’t miss the carnitas tacos, fatty-edged pork shoulder grilled to order, or the al pastor, a pork filling with a tangy marinade (99 cents-$2.25 each).
Seafood was another don’t-miss. The restaurant serves real-deal ceviche with sweet shrimp cooked in a citrus juice bath, topped with fresh-sliced avocado ($8.99 for two). Shrimp with rice ($11.99), with a tangy tomato sauce and lots of grilled mushrooms and green and red peppers, impressed with its portion size; the diabla shrimp ($11.99) offered a zippy sauce.
If you pay Los Tamales a visit and don’t mind long lines, the restaurant’s anniversary, Jan. 30, will have a 50 percent off sale to thank diners for their first year of business.
Get the tamales. You won’t be sorry.
Los Tamales Mexican Restaurant
Where: 1018 72nd St. E., Tacoma; 253-301-0849; facebook.com/Lostamalestacoma.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays.
Recommendation: Highest recommendation offered, with no issues found on six visits.
Noise: Low to moderate.
Style of service: Fast casual. Order at the counter.
Beverages: Nonalcoholic choices of Mexican sodas, fountain sodas, horchata and during the winter, champurrado, a type of Mexican hot chocolate.
Bulk orders: A dozen or more tamales are usually available with same-day notice, but for large orders, call a day or two ahead. Tamales are $1.99 each or $18 a dozen.
The story behind the restaurant
The story of Los Tamales, a 1-year-old Mexican restaurant in East Tacoma, started across the mountains.
Alma and Efren Mendoza worked at orchards in Chelan. Their daughter, Palmira Diaz, recalled lean times in the off season. “My parents didn’t have many jobs in the winter, so my father decided to move to Seattle,” said Diaz.
Efren caught a ride in Wenatchee bound for Seattle. With no money or place to stay, he wound up at a shelter, said Diaz. It didn’t take him long to figure that Seattle was too big, too busy, she said.
“And then he got here and he stayed at the Tacoma Rescue Mission,” said Diaz, who was in grade school at the time. Her father found work as a dishwasher at Moctezuma’s. The family soon moved across the mountains and joined Efren in the early 1990s. They found work picking raspberries in Puyallup while Efren worked at Moctezuma’s.
They scrimped for seven years in the hopes of opening a small Mexican grocery store. In 1999, they did just that. Diaz credits the generosity of the owner of the small strip mall off East 72nd Street and Golden Given Road East for allowing the family to open their cramped 1,200 square feet store El Jalapeno with “no deposit or anything, just an agreement.”
Diaz was 16 when the family opened the store, which expanded a number of times to its current size of 6,000 square feet.
In 2002, they opened neighboring Tortilleria Azteca. It was never open to the public, but fed the store with fresh tortillas that flew off El Jalapeno’s shelves.
They expanded to tamales. And couldn’t keep up with demand. “There was a big demand. Customers were coming in and asking for tamales, tamales, tamales and we only had them on the weekends. And they kept saying you should have them every day.” So the family did start offering the tamales every day, but they still couldn’t keep up with demand.
That’s when they knew they should open a restaurant with a focus on tamales.
In a conversation with Diaz, I quickly dialed in on why the family has been so successful in building its businesses for 17 years. “If you unite, you can do big things as a family,” she said.