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Los Angeles International Tamale Festival

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You still have until 6pm tonight to get over to MacArthur Park and hit the tamale festival! I'm even thinking about going back again for the one treat I missed, and then I realized that I would have to be crazy to do that. So, I will probably see you there! The tamale eating contest is at 1pm. If things go the way they do on TV, I'm sure it will make you never want to look at another tamale. But that's OK, because there are tortas, tacos, pupusas the size of LP records, and even some new things I had never ever seen before!

Let the fun begin!

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I personally feel like tamales are like meatloaf. The tamale you grew up with is the tamale by which you judge all other tamales. It doesn't matter if it was from the church, a neighbor, the lady with the grocery cart, or if you are lucky, your family (and if you are unlucky, the grocery store. Poor thing).

The first stand we tried were the tamales from one of the event organizers, Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe. They definitely had friendly servers, in spite of the long day and long lines.

As for the tamales, the masa was extremely fluffy with good texture, but they weren't like MY tamales. I add red sauce and the pan drippings to my masa to make it heavier and richer. So fluffiness is not my thing, but I know that is many people's preferred style. They seemed to be overwhelmed, as was every booth. They needed about 10 more food vendors. Each line was about 30 people long.

The tamales suffered a little for the overwhelming rush. They were uneven (as homemade tamales usually are). The masa in Bob's chile verde tamale was still mushy and raw. he returned it for a chicken with green sauce, and was happy with that. I thought my beef with pasilla was a little skimpy on the meat and heavy on the masa. Of course, that again is relative and I know people who will argue about the proper masa vs. filling ratio for much longer than you care to listen. The mole tamale was fair to middling.

But Mama's chile queso tamale blew me away. It was the perfect tamale. Lots of cheese and just the right kick from red jalapenos. The cheese kind of reminded me of Asadero, the cheese in the market that is just labeled "Quesedilla". I tried to find out what kind of cheese it was. They said, "Jack" but it was too stringy and rich. Finally I asked an old lady inside if it was queso fresco and she nodded. I am thinking Chihuahua maybe? Maybe it was a combo of different cheeses. That is definitely the tamale to go for if you only have one tamale this year.

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Tamales innards do not photograph well. hence my hesitation with the tamale eating contest. This is the beef tamale I tried to cut open daintily with my jagged plastic fork:

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He is so patient.

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There was entertainment all day. Some of the daytime performers didn't get much of a crowd. Some of them were upstaged by the giant sign. But he had heart.

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Unlike some street festivals, the streets were kept clean of debris and trash didn't pile up. In spite of a lack of tables, the park has so many walls to sit on, and of course there was grass. Some people just plopped right down on the curb.

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All of the food vendors had really long lines. So we made lots of new friends. One of my new friends showed up with this tamale and was very unhappy. I bit a crispy edge, and I think it was overcooked rather than intentionally crispy. I didn't want to just tear apart this person's food, and the only way she could describe it was, "wrong." Most Central American tamales differ in size, wrappings and fillings, like green olives. I have certainly never seen a big, flat tamale before.

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My new friend also turned me on to a whole new world: Cueritos Preparados. They take one, giant chicharrón and cover it with a salad and cueritos, which is pork skin marinated in vinegar. Pork skin on pork skin. It would be a lifesaver for anyone on the Atkins diet. Both the chicharrónes and Tostada bag in these pictures are perched on big jars of cueritos.

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And if a giant Chicharrón is too inconvenient, you can have it served in a bag of Tostitos to easily eat while walking around the festival.

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This is probably the most impressive flame and resultant smoke cloud i have seen come off of a grill. Now, that's a fire!

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By the time I got to the front of the Mexico Lindo line, I discovered they didn't have tamales. But I didn't care because everything else looked so good. Especially my guilty pleasure - the bacon and jalapeno dog. The bacon makes the meaty dog even richer, greasier and smokier. This is the hotdog of the gods. Screw Pink's and everyone else. This will be my last meal if I ever go on that killing spree.

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They also had the world's biggest pupusas, but I just couldn't hang. Besides the hotdog, I also got a taco pastor that was fantastic (and they let me dress it myself).

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This guy must have been important, because he walked around back and all of the vendors gave him food. He was still cool enough to let me photograph his stash. Speaking of dignitaries, there was a list of invited city councilmembers on the website, and it was like a scavenger hunt for me trying to catch Tom LaBonge stuffing his face with tacos, or Bernard Parks going Chicharrón Wild. But no such luck. Maybe they will be in the tamale eating contest tomorrow!

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That guy's stash turned me on to the shrimp cocktails and tostadas at Mi Linda Sinaloa.

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Between eating binges, I wandered around taking lots of pictures of ducks and trees. I became fascinated with the vendors, and that will have to be its own post. I couldn't resist these children either, breaking my own rule about photographing children without asking their parents first. The second kid looks like he might have been being abducted, so maybe I am off the karmic hook.

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Every fisherman has a story about the one that got away. By the time I made it back to Mexico Lindo during my rounds, the gigantic tortas were gone.

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Look at them; they're monsters!

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Just a few more hours until the tamale festival opens again!!!

(All Photos taken by Elise for LAist)