The (beyond) popular festival is back after attracting 2,500 people last year—and it’s even bigger this year with more offerings. Here are Brian Addison’s choice selections when it comes to exploring its mighty array of offerings.
Last year’s Long Beach International Tamale Festival in DTLB drew thousands and thousands of people wanting to explore the almighty tamal, from Mexican to Guatemalan styles. The result? A multi-cultural event that really begged the question as to why Long Beach hasn’t celebrated the tamal in such a festive way before.
The event is now back on Dec. 4, this year with more vendors which means more tamales and more things to try. Here are my top picks for who you should visit and what you should be bite into.
(And for members of my food group [aka Cronies], use the discount code CRONIES to receive a discount on tickets.)
Torta de Tamal and Gansito Tamal from Evil Cooks
Oh yes, L.A.’s “gothtromp” masters Evil Cooks is back in Long Beach with husband-and-wife, king-and-queen Elvia Huerta and Alex Garcia. They’ve creates a pastor heaven that not only earned them a spot on the Los Angeles Times’s Best 101 Restaurants (despite not having a brick-and-mortar) but has rightfully garnered them a cult-like following.
But what to expect for the tamal festival? A pork belly tamal with chile verde. A torta de tamal—a beige-on-beige, carb-on-carb masterpiece if there ever was one. And—get this—a play on the classic Mexican sweet snack Gansito a la tamal: chocolate, cream, and strawberry.
And don’t forget Evil Cooks’s Long Beach origins: In Los Angeles, they are known as the Gothtrompo pioneers, using their own take on the Yucateco adobo-like paste called recado negro to create pitch black versions of pastor that are as visually luring as they are tasty.
In Long Beach, they were known as the humble Torta Wednesday masters at the now-closed Los Primos restaurant near 6th and Atlantic, the very gig that brought Evil Cooks to life.
Tamales Gísu and Smoked Tamales from Axiom Barbecue’s
Qiana and Ian Mafnas hold a very special place in my heart: Resilient, focused, and utterly down to earth, the husband-and-wife team have created a mini-barbecue empire with their Axiom popup throughout Long Beach and Lakewood.
But here, we see them flex on different skills: Ian brings his Chamorro heritage to the forefront with tamales gísu, a Guam-based tamal that is half red, half white with its masa, representing spice and nice.
And don’t think they’ll be skipping out on the smoke: They will have an all-smokey tamal with smoked masa, smoked brisket, and a smoked tomatillo sauce.
All the Grub from Los Reyes del Tacos Sabroso
I’ve talked about this little hole-in-the-wall joint for nearly five years now, lauding its Mexico City-centric menu with large, corn tortilla quesadillas stuffed with huitlacoche and lettuce and crema… It’s offering of tacos de canasta… Their taco gobernador…
So the fact that they’re going to be representing at the tamales festival is a win for Mexican food lovers.
Expect not just tamales—something not on their regular menu at their brick-and-mortar off of Anaheim so something to surely check out—but tacos and more.
What I’m really hoping for in their offerings? Their corn-based quesadillas: These folded wonders stuffed to the brim with quest, lettuce, crema, and your choice of additional filling, ranging from squash blossoms—don’t underestimate this—and huitlacoche to chicharrón and birria.
Vegan Guatemalan Tamales from Zook’s Kitchen
I first Zhukry Gonzalez, affectionately called Zook by friends and family, when writing a story about vendors at Junipero Beach. His affable character paired with some seriously divine açaí bowls have made him a staple along the beach path but unknown to many are his talents with creating vegan food.
Dubbed the Mayan Warrior tamal, Zook’s take on the classic Guatemalan tamal sticks to having the staples: a gorgeous mixture of green olives and sweet red pepper as a garnish while substituting lard with vegetable oil and chicken with plant-based chick’n, potato, capers, tomatoes, onions, all the while blending in pumpkin and sesame seeds with sesame seeds.
The result? A banana lead-wrapped tamal that should be more of a staple in the SoCal diet.
Margaritas from Lola’s Mexican Cuisine
There is perhaps no Mexican restaurant in Long Beach that stirs up simultaneous love and ire than Lola’s—a point that I perpetually bring up as it nears 15 years of service on Retro Row (and another location in Bixby Knolls).
Not only have its owners, Mexican-American husband-and-wife team Luis Navarro and Brenda Riviera, been audaciously accused of “gentrifying Mexican food,” in the end it is both them and Luis’s mother Lola, who opened the space herself after moving from Guadalajara, who have the last laugh: The perpetual crowds and constant table-turnover at both locations show a testament to the brand’s strength (even if the palates of the Lola’s crowds don’t get tacos de pulpo or a duck breast covered in mole negro, two of my favorite dishes from Lola’s that don’t remain on the menu because they simply don’t sell).
Amid the constant jabs online, there is one thing few can argue: The drinks at Lola’s are masterfully made, particularly their margaritas. Boozy, lime-centric, balanced, these will be the perfect companion to the heft of the mighty tamal. So get a few. Or four.
Tamal de Ceniza from Fonda Tobalá
As with Los Reyes, I’ve long praised the the gastronomical wonders of Guadalajara-based Chef Manuel Bañuelos and his wife Chef Fernanda, owners and operators of the tiny-but-mighty Fonda Tobalá inside Rosemallows in DTLB—and to see them create a side-by-side team for a return to the food scene here in Long Beach has been one of my culinary highlights of 2022.
Fonda Tobalá is, genuinely, a place that deserves an entire brick-and-mortar of its own—but until then, I am genuinely grateful we have a space to experience some of the city’s best Mexican food. And that last part? It’s not hyperbole.
For the tamales festival, they will be doing a tamal in which they nixtamal the masa themselves—this time with ash—to create a beautifully colored tamal with fermented chards, a chiles güero kosho, and crema.
It’s going to be, well, divine.
Micheladas from Sangre de Tigre
Does Long Beach have a brand that makes some of the region’s best michelada mixes? Yes, yes we do—and the stellar team behind Sangre de Tigre, which dutifully appears at nearly every festival in the city.
Ranging from salty and spicy to sweet-ish—their tamarind and watermelon flavors should not be immediately dismissed—these quality mixes are, simply put, delicious. Grab a small pour and add it into your beer as you meander the festival.