Saturday, December 02, 2006

Special Foodventure #19: 15th Annual International Tamale Festival (Indio)

There are only a few things that would get me out to Coachella Valley - Palm Springs resorts & nearby gambling (a habit I've cut off long ago), wonderful medjool and deglet noor dates (though I can easily order that online), the Indie music fest, and of course - the International Tamale Festival - a food-crazy affair that takes up four to five city blocks & goes on all weekend long (always the first Sat-Sun in December), and one that I'm gladly driving out two hours for, in fact this is my own fourth annual trip. Of course, while there are dozens of tamale boothes about (I guesstimate 50), there are plenty of other things to check out too, including:

cheap trinkets . . .
bamboo plants . . .
even oxygen bars -- for those going to an inland rave in the night ;)

But my first stop upon arriving at 9:45 (15 minutes before the festival officially opens) is Grandma Lupe's Authentic Tamales stall - where the line is already half a block long.

And went on longer and longer as the day passes on - making this place a favorite camp-out for news crews asking people why they are waiting 3-4 hours for the tamales . . .
. . . because they're da-yum good! This stall consistently wins "best tamale" awards at the festival, and Lupe herself (the cutest little elderly woman you ever did see) only makes tamales for this event.

Fortunately, with my early arrival I waited only about 90 minutes (and had a pleasant time chatting with fellow line neighbors, listening to iPod, surfing on the BlackBerry) ~ but when I got to the front I loaded up at least dozen of those frozen suckers to bring home, as well as 2 freshly steamed ones (and I'm nowhere near the largest single purchase record of 72).

I started off with the pork tamale - fluffy moist masa with just enough red sauce and meltingly tender shredded pork with potatoes, carrots and an olive for added juiciness and flavor -- followed by the . . .
Strawberry & cream cheeese tamale - by far my favorite tamale of all time! (I don't care if it's a bastardized version) - strawberry-soaked masa with a rich creamy center ~ tastes like an insanely delicious combo of strawberry pie, cheesecake & cornbread!
As I was having my religious moment with Lupe's tamales, the next-door stall, and its respectable line, caught my attention . . .
A closer study of the Holy Guaca-moly revealed that this place's guac won awards at 15 different festival, include a "best" award from the avocado festival. Ok! I'm sold . . . but wanting I bought a to-go container to enjoy in the comfort of home, saving my stomach today (almost) strictly for tamales. When I did dive into them with my unsalted corn chips, this thick green dip did live up to its hype - great avocado flavors and buttery textures with a perfect acid touch from lemon juice & tomatoes and the slightest flavor kick from cilantro & spices. My only grievance is that it's maybe a bit too thick; I broke quite a few substantial chips trying to scoop.

But onward with my tamale quest, which brings me to . . .

The Original Shrimp Tamale, which, again tickled my curiosity . . . I like shrimp tacos, and shrimp burritos -- and quesadillas, maybe shrimp tamales will fare just as well.
Or maybe not - the tamale itself isn't bad, but having shrimp (a few measley small pieces, no less) and a somewhat spicy sauce did not endear me to this dish. But at least I gave it a try (and learned to avoid it in the future.)

My next stop? Nini's! That fabulous Whittier-based joint I discovered at the other tamale festival. And the guy recognized me. "You drove all the way out here for tamales? You must be crazy about them . . ." why, yes, yes I am--
Being too full to eat anything else but remembering how well they kept in the fridge from last time, I bought two beef tamales - yes, made with shortening - and stuffed them into my bag. If they taste anything like their porky variants from last time, I have much to look forward to.
Afterwards, I stopped by Gourmet Tamales - which was the Best Commercial Tamale winner of 2005 ~ and I couldn't figure out why. I got a sweet corn tamale to take home, it was rather grainy masa and there was no filling, so just tasted sweet & corny but otherwise a bit bland. Spreading some Holy Guaca-moly on it did improve the dish though--only if because it reminds me of the guac-laden sweet tamale cakes that Cheesecake Factory serves as appetizers (but more than filing enough to be an entree.)

Finally, my last 2 tamale stops . . .

Mecca Apostolic Church (best non-profit tamale of '05) and Indio-based Ricon Norteno Restaurant, where I got the Cheese & Chicken-Tomatillo tamales, respectively. Have yet to try but can't wait to dive into.

And of course, before actually leaving I let myself get tempted by the dessert stalls -

and the Glazed Almonds lady coerced me into buying a small bag of sweet, glazed, fragrant almonds by offering me free samples. The nerve! But really, who can say no to a healthy dose of healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E? (especially when it's covered in sugar, vanilla & cinnamon.)

While I wanted to make a stop at a few more stalls (namely Corn Maiden & Molly's), I had no vendor booth directory and my wallet is feeling empty & the bags full (not to mention wanting to race home to catch the Big Game!). So concludes my somewhat abridged annual journey to the Tamale Festival. But like the previous three years, I left with much preciousness - that I'll devour two at a time throughout this month.

PS - tamales here cost around $2.50 - $3 each, but even then it shouldn't cost more than $10 to fill yourself up with masa goodness!

Indio International Tamale Festival
Indio, CA


henrychan888 said...

that's awesome! can't believe people wait 3-4 hours for tamales... I would love to try these. I wonder how long it takes grandma lupe to make enough supply for all the people at this event. that holy-guac sounds amazing.

Anonymous said...

Visit in 3rd Annual Los Angeles International Tamale Festival on Nov. 9, 10 & 11, 2007


Anonymous said...

"NINIS TAMALES" I have had the other tamales mentioned and I cant say that they even compare to Ninis not even with the cutest old lady.... I have gone around the place sampled and came up with the hands Down winner Whittiers Ninis Tamales lots of FLAVOR LOTS OF MEAT and the green chili and Cheese is really now my favorite of all!!! Wont catch me in the long line again I know where the best is and the rest are no longer in my opinion worth the wait... SEE YA next year ... R. RAINES


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