Dear Eater SF,
I’m confident that you’ll have an answer to our question: Can you recommend a good place to get tamales in Oakland?
Thanks so much,
Starved for Masa
Thank you so much for the timely question — one that’s top of mind right now, especially for folks who grew up with the magic of a big, steaming vat of tamales as part of their holiday tradition (for whom the answer might simply be: their grandmother’s house, naturally). While you didn’t mention Christmas explicitly in your question, it is the season, and the good news is that any tamal place that’s worth its masa is likely going to be kicking production into another gear in the coming weeks — even as COVID has taken big family gatherings out of the equation. All of the places that I’d recommend will also satisfy your day-to-day masa bundle–eating needs. Let’s get to it then!
It’s good that you asked about Oakland specifically because, as it turns out, that’s where you’ll find my favorite tamales in the entire Bay Area, at Tamaleria Azteca, the little North Oakland takeout window where Sergio Gomez has been hawking these corn husk–wrapped beauties for more than a decade, dating back to the years when Gomez’s mother ran the place as “Tamaleria Unicos de Cuernavaca.” The main point of distinction here is the texture and flavor of the masa itself — perhaps the fluffiest I’ve had and almost certainly the most savory. (The key, as with so many delicious things, is the liberal use of lard.) The pork tamal here is almost unrivaled in its deliciousness, especially when drizzled with some of Azteca’s good red salsa, which comes in a little plastic baggy. My colleague, Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag, is partial to the “special,” in which the tamal of your choice gets topped with an abundance of lettuce and sour cream and served with a side of rice and beans.
For those looking to stock up for the holidays, Azteca has already started taking orders — $35 for a dozen — with a deadline to order by December 20 if you want to pick up your tamales on the 24th or 25th. If you order enough you can even request off-menu options, like the tamaleria’s much-praised (but rarely offered) sweet pineapple tamales.
One of the nice things about tamales is that there’s so much variety from region to region and country to country. So if, for instance, you prefer the Oaxacan style — wrapped in aromatic banana leaves rather than corn husks and, often, paired with mole — you need to look no further than La Oaxaqueña, which has a stand at the Tuesday and Saturday farmers markets in Berkeley. Both the chicken and black mole or pork with red mole tamales ($60 per dozen) are worth a special trip, and the nice thing is that La Oaxaqueña always offers a plant-based option as well, featuring kabocha squash and other seasonal vegetables. For larger orders — for Christmas or otherwise — it’s best to email owners Rosa Oliva and Carolina Santos directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact them via Instagram DM.
Or, if you’re like me, you might love the quiver-y, pudding-like Salvadoran style of tamales most of all. If so, Norma Meat and Deli, a little taqueria and pupusa spot tucked inside a Richmond convenience store, has you covered.
And lest our friends in San Francisco feel left out of the masa party, I would be remiss not to mention what might be obvious: that there are great tamal options in SF proper as well. Two of my favorites: La Palma Mexicatessen, the Mission standby, which sells great tamales all the time but churns out tens of thousands of them every December. The tamales are priced at $32.99 for a dozen, and if you intend to stuff your freezer with more than two or three dozen, you should call in your order at least a week in advance. They’ll take orders for Christmas through December 20. (The manager I spoke to also said to make sure you specify that you’d like your tamales cold, which is preferable if you plan to reheat the later on.)
And the Bernal Heights guisado specialist El Buen Comer, whose chef-owner, Isabel Caudillo, got her start selling tamales at the Noe Valley farmers market, has brought these fan favorites — available in varieties like rajas con queso or pork in salsa verde — back on the restaurant’s menu during the pandemic. You can order the tamales online, whether it’s a big order for Christmas or just tonight’s dinner.