Making tamales is a long, multi-step process that Latino families traditionally tackle together for special occasions. For Los Tamaleros truck, tamale-making is a family undertaking that’s out to make every stop feel like a special event.
Though street tamales have been sold from carts across Los Angeles since the 1800s, Joe Vargas noticed that they hadn’t been a main feature on the latest trendy food trucks. So, in 2015, he started Los Tamaleros as a modern masa-bundling business, driven by generational family recipes learned from his mother, Lidia. Joe helms Los Tamaleros with his son Alejandro and daughter Vanessa managing the business, while his wife Julie oversees food preparation. Altogether, the Vargas family fuels Los Tamaleros with their affection for making fresh Mexican specialties by hand.
“My dad’s always had a big interest in creating something to give back, and making tamales was something that was passed down in my family,” said Alejandro. “So, that’s what we try to put out there is food that we enjoy ourselves and that we hope other people will enjoy.”
Of course, tamales headline the truck’s menu, filled with familiar favorites including chicken, pork, cheese, and sweet corn. Given the hours it takes to prepare them, the crew takes on the arduous task of making each component and assembling the tamales in a kitchen beforehand. The meats must be cooked, the salsas blended, the masa formed and stuffed, the corn husks soaked, and the tamales wrapped—all in preparation to be loaded onto the truck where the end product gets freshly cooked in a hot steam bath as the final step.
Once you unwrap the pouch, bubbles quickly evaporate as mingling aromas of freshly cut corn and spices are exhaled in steam. Los Tamaleros makes sure the fillings maximize the entire length of the masa tunnel, peeking out from each end and giving you a mouthful of flavor from the first to the last bite. “That’s the fun part,” Alejandro said, “opening the tamales, and being surprised by the taste and the presentation and what’s inside.”
Filling the tamales can be a tricky task in itself, which can elude even the most patient of home cooks. “If it’s too masa heavy, it’s not going to be a good tamale,” Alejandro advised. “If it’s too little or too thin, it’s going to break it apart. So, it’s definitely all about consistency.”
The meat tamales exude the distinctive tastes of housemade salsas from recipes that go back several generations in the Vargas family. Chicken is mixed with salsa verde, and pork is usually spiced with red salsa, creating signature flavors for the food truck. “That’s probably the most important. That’s what makes our tamales different. They have a kick to it,” Alejandro explained. “If you open it up and eat it, you definitely feel the spice. To me, that’s authentic.”
Los Tamaleros sources many of their ingredients from independently owned carnicerias and local shops. According to Alejandro, some of them don’t even have names, but what they lack in signage and branding, they make up for in authentic Mexican produce. Many work directly with farmers and ranchers in California and Mexico.
“Walking into these little mom-and-pop shops when we need to get basic ingredients is something we’ve known to be essential to what we do and the idea of tradition that we try to carry,” Alejandro said.
Though the tamales tend to seize the spotlight, Los Tamaleros also makes other authentic Mexican dishes on the truck, including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas. “It tastes different for you to try them when they’re made fresh in front of you,” said Alejandro. “It gives you an idea of the work that goes into creating food.”
For the tacos, balls of masa dough are flattened into tortillas, then immediately thrown onto the grill, forming a warm platter to fold around a selection of contents such as fish, chicken, or boldly seasoned traditional meats, including carnitas, al pastor, asada, birria, and chorizo. And for the adventurous, there’s lengua (tongue), cabeza (head), and buche (pork stomach). “Those are delicacies. If you know it, then you’re going to try it,” Alejandro said. “It’s also fun seeing people try something they haven’t tried before.”
To satisfy your crunchier cravings, taquitos are the latest addition to the menu. Los Tamaleros also makes these by hand, rolling freshly pressed tortillas around seasoned chicken and frying them until crispy. These bronzed tubes of masa and meat are then topped with crumbled cheese, salsa verde, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.
The sopes are also subject to the masa-manipulating skills of the Los Tamaleros crew, shaping out thicker, compact tortillas on which to balance the meats and toppings. “With Mexican food, you can definitely create one thing from another. And they’re all so interlinked with masa,” Alejandro said.
Masa is even incorporated among the beverage options, in Los Tamaleros’ seasonal champurrado. This traditional Mexican hot chocolate drink is thickened with corn flour and flavored with cinnamon and other ingredients from a family recipe. It’s only available from late October through the fall and winter when it can be kept warm and fresh on the truck. But for hot days or anytime you need to quench your thirst, the truck regularly offers cold jamaica and horchata.
In the spirit of forming gatherings around traditional foods, you may often find Los Tamaleros surrounded by lingering groups of bobbing heads energized by beats from the S.W.A.T. Jamz truck, which is deejayed by former police officer Manny Ortiz. This mobile DJ booth was also a former police truck that Joe converted to start another Vargas family enterprise.
“Our peak times happen around 7-8pm, and then we get people dancing and doing dance moves here,” Joe said with a smile.
You can find Los Tamaleros each week at the Mission Hills Grubfest on Mondays, at Truckies Tuesdays in Sylmar, and the Granada Hills Grubfest on Fridays. For other engagements, check the calendar on LosTamaleros.com or follow their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. There, you can also keep up with announcements for placing tamale orders by the dozen for the holidays.