Back in 2018, Eater included Tamales Elena on their guide to finding the best regional tamales in Los Angeles, with intrepid reporting done by Bill Esparza, aka @StreetGourmetLA. If you’re a fan of Latin cuisine in this city, he’s the one to follow for hot tips and expert deconstruction of what regional cuisine matters — and why. So it’s no surprise that when Maria Elena Lorenzo and her family decided to take their culinary stylings from Watts food truck to Bell Gardens brick-and-mortar, Esparza was breaking that story, too. But after reading his missive — that this is the first Afro-Mexican restaurant in LA to serve Guerrero-style cuisine from La Costa Chica — how could Angeleno foodies worth their salt resist taking the trek out the 105 or the 710 to try this extremely rare, matriarchy-powered food?
Since learning about the new spot, which officially opened its doors on July 15, 2020, I headed over to Tamales Elena Y Antojitos (translation: Elena’s tamales and snacks) last week for a tasting session. Working solo and needing to try multiple dishes so you can write about them for readers? Not a bad gig. For about $30 (tip included) I acquired a mini feast from the kitchen including tamales, tacos, pozole, and even a refreshing sweet drink. It might be off the beaten path, but that price for food of this quality and flavor is astounding in itself.
As former food truck operators, Elena and her crew are more than familiar with the idea of speed and portability, so even in their new permanent location — with plenty of outdoor patio seating to assuage current concerns related to the pandemic — the restaurant features a drive thru window for quick, efficient pick up. This method also feels like a wink and a nod to the Californian and west coast car culture that favored drive thru dining long before safety reasons made it even more appealing.
Eating al fresco on the dining patio was the option I chose after the long-ish drive, and even on a hot day, their patio was an oasis of shade and hospitality. At a friend’s recommendation I started off with a chilate, a regional drink from Costa Chica, Guerrero made with cocoa, rice, cinnamon and sugar. It seems like it will be similar to horchata, but it’s way more chocolate-y and far less milky. The drink was thick and almost chalky, not cloying and too-sweet like horchata can be but malty, and stood up to the greasy, spicy food it accompanied.
Split into roughly four sections, the debut menus offers tamales —either warped in corn husks or banana leaves — tacos for $2 a pop, guisados aka stews or house plates that include moles and chilaquiles, and last but not least, pozoles, a type of traditional stew made with hominy (specially prepared corn) and pork head. What’s even more impressive about Elena’s menus is that despite how traditional their recipes are in many ways, they’ve altered some of that tradition to fit modern Angeleno diets by offering ample vegetarian and vegan options.
I swear by the crispy fish tacos ($4 for two), dripping in oil and perfect for dipping in the dangerously spicy orange salsa on the side, or drenching in salsa verde. But if you’re not a meat or fish eater, the tamales section offers spinach and cheese, cheese and jalapeno or even mushroom (vegan) options and sweeter fare like pineapple and strawberry. I opted for the banana leaf-wrapped chicken tamale since I grew up eating the corn husk ones, and was surprised by the thinness and lightness of the dish, which would’ve needed two others to make up a full meal. At $3.50 per, that’d still a cheap lunch when eating out in this city.
And as much as the tacos and tamales impressed me, the pozole was on a whole separate level. It’s a dish I don’t have a lot of experience with, and I can’t say for sure but I think my visit to Elena’s was the first time I’ve had it. Asking for the expertise of the girl behind the counter, I ended up with a small, green pork pozole ($12), and was nearly overwhelmed with just how large “small” was when it showed up. Not only that, but the stew comes with a whole platter of assorted toppings that makes eating it feel like a choose-your-own-adventure delight. Again, though the stew is traditionally made with pork head, Elena’s offers a vegan version built around stewed corn.
Slightly spicy with oil pooling on the top and hominy for firm but slippery texture, the familiar garnishes like radishes, avocado slices and diced white onions helped cool the soup. Getting a mouthful of the stewed pork with a big slice of fresh cabbage and crumblings from a wedge of queso fresco, on the other hand, was such a masterful marriage of flavors it stopped me in my tracks. Chicharrones (or fried pork rinds), chips, and fresh chile rounded out the potential toppings to “dress” the pozole, and a squeeze of fresh lime wedge here and there added some much welcome citrus, too.
Though I don’t personally have a lot of experience with all the different styles of food and cuisines that come from Mexican culture, regionally, everything I ate at Elena’s had a freshness and a lightness that wasn’t dependent on the fried meat, tortilla, and melted cheese structure that has taken over a lot of American’s mindsets about what this food’s composition will inevitably be. The food tasted coastal and fresh, portable and full of ingenuity, and as much as I loved the tamale, it’s the pozole that already has me daydreaming of another visit.
And if you go, don’t skimp on the chilate — it’s the platonic ideal of a midday drink to cut the heat. Maybe get another one for the car ride home.
Follow Tamales Elena Y Antojitos on Instagram here.