I'd never quite understood the fuss over tamales. I found them to be heavy lumps, like bad protein bars, strictly meant for filling empty bellies. But Juan Tamale has shown me the way, and now I'm a believer.
Juan (or Juan Tamale, as he likes to be called) is the owner and head tamale maker at California Fiesta Tamale House. He's been crafting hand-made tamales for more than 15 years. He made a name for himself at a little stand in North Hills and six months ago opened a large, cheerful space on the third floor of the Burbank Town Center mall. It used to be a '50s diner so the red swivel bar stools remain, but it has a Mesoamerican feel now with an homage to corn's great history printed on the wall.
Corn is what it's all about here. Good tacos and burritos are available, but the real reason to come here are the moist, light, sweet tamales. Juan makes the batter fresh regularly with masa, water, baking powder and a soybean-based shortening. “No lard,” he promises, “so they're not greasy.” He then smears the batter into two corn husks, puts in the filling, wraps it again and nestles it alongside others in a basket, open-side up, where they steam for an hour and a half.