SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — If Christmas is about traditions, then this is a Latin American tradition we can all get behind. We’re talking tamales. We tackled all the popular spots around Salt Lake valley to show you what makes them so special, and how you can get them just in time for Christmas — or at least their ingredients.
Many restaurants in Salt Lake City say their tamales are made from family recipes that go back generations. If you’ve never had a tamale, you’re looking at meat, rice, beans, veggies, and other fillings wrapped in a corn-based dough mixture called masa. They’re then cooked in corn husks or banana leaves. They can be vegetarian or even vegan if that’s your thing. They can even satisfy a sweet tooth. The varieties can be endless.
It should be noted that many of the restaurants listed below already have their orders in for Christmas, though some are still taking orders. Masa may also still be available at some locations for you to make your own tamales.
(Pick up at local stores and order online)
Rico Catering President/CEO Jorge Fierro said his crews will probably make 10,000 tamales this week, including beef, pork, chicken, vegetarian and vegan varieties. Those tamales will end up in stories like Smith’s, Harmons, Macy’s, Whole Foods and Fresh Markets — as well as their own website. And it started with the company selling ready-to-eat pinto beans 24 years ago, before the company started knocking on supermarket doors to get their brand in stores.
Fierro said Rico Catering has about 10 different kinds of tamales, with their most popular being pork with red enchilada sauce, chicken with green tomatillo salsa, cheese with pasilla peppers, vegan cheese with cream of mushroom, and vegetarian in banana leaves, Mexican cheese, artichokes and asparagus.
“Everything is fresh, everything is handmade as you can see it, and we are very grateful for the support,” said Fierro.
(Orders closed, but masa is available to make your own!)
“In Mexico for the holidays, it’s a tradition the families make the tamales at home,” said House of Corn fonder and owner Armando Guerrero. “Everyone gathers — mom, dad, grandparents, children, and everyone makes the tamales the night before Christmas. And it’s very beautiful. It’s a beautiful tradition to do that with the family.”
Guerrero said House of Corn stone-grinds all of their corn, including white, blue and red organic kernels for tortillas and tamales. Everything is done in-house, he said, with 200 pounds of corn being ground per hour.
Open since August 2020, Guerrero said it’s been tough running a new business in a pandemic world, but his passion is still there. He said he’s proud to be making a dish that goes back centuries. He recommends the chicken with green salsa, carnitas with red salsa, and even “sweet ones.”
(Orders accepted through Christmas Eve)
Twenty years ago, Andres Sanchez said his mother-in-law, a Mexican native, started delivering tamales all across Utah using a family recipe she brought with her to America. Cristina Olivera arrived in the U.S. in 1999 with one daughter and another on the way. She later had three more children, who have all helped with the family business. This year, La Casa Del Tamal was named one of the top three Mexican restaurants in the city by Salt Lake City Weekly readers.
In 2019, La Casa Del Tamal started selling those tamales to customers in Salt Lake City. Sanchez is now the president of that restaurant and Azucar Coffee.
“The most popular here is the verde, the chicken with the green salsa,” he said. “My personal favorite is the rajas con queso, which is the peppers and the queso fresco. That one I like the spiciness and I like when I get a jalapeno in the bite. It’s really good.”
Sanchez said a good tamale has a long cooking process, with around three hours of prep and cooking. But it’s worth it.
“It just kind of brings you home,” said Sanchez. “And makes you feel comfortable. Mexican cuisine is so big, and when you think about tamales, you think about Christmas and you think about family.”
(Orders accepted through Christmas Eve.)
“Christmas Eve gets kind of crazy,” said Victor Galindo, manager/owner of Victor’s Restaurant. “Maybe sometimes 12, 15 dozens at a time. We’ll take orders as big as they like to.”
Galindo also manages Victor’s Tires, but in the month of December, his life is filled with tamales. Just last week, he said his team put together 700 tamales for a company Christmas party. His team has made as many as 40,000 tamales for the holidays.
“We came from Mexico — different parts of Mexico — mixed it up, and did our own thing,” said Galindo.
Pineapples and strawberries in a tamale? You’d be a fool not to try the many different varieties Victor’s has on the menu.
“It’s about culture, it’s about family connection, it’s about honoring,” said Lucy Cardenas, owner of Red Iguana, Red Iguana 2, and Taste of Red Iguana. “I like the cheese tamales with pork chile verde on top.”
The oldest Salt Lake City restaurant on this list, Reg Iguana goes back to 1985 and has won national awards, including write-ups in the New York Times. Founded by Ramon and Maria Cardenas, the family has kept their legacy alive. But the Cardenas have been serving food in the valley since 1965, starting with Casa Grande.
You can get pork, chicken, or cheese tamales covered in either mole sauce or chile verde.
“Start making tamales,” said Lucy Cardenas. “Maybe the world will become a better place.”