Where to Order Holiday Tamales in Houston — Updated
They say that if you bring tamales to a party, everyone will have something to unwrap. This saying joyfully pokes fun at the humble tamale, the lineage of which probably predates modern corn.
Early tamales were likely made with teosinte, the grass that eventually became corn. Teosinte has small ears with approximately 12 “tooth-cracking” kernels, and it was the staple grain of the early Mesoamerican diet. Over time, ancient gatherers selected bigger ears with more kernels and with softer coatings, slowly transforming teosinte into modern corn around 4,500 years ago.
Corn was so important to Indigenous Americans that many considered it sacred. For some, the early process of making tamales included chants and ceremonies, such as the blessing of the seeds and harvest festivals.
Today, masa made from that corn is the key ingredient of tamales. The corn is transformed into masa through a process called nixtamalization. Based on current archeological evidence, the process likely developed around 1000 BC, though the exact dates are nearly impossible to determine. Modern nixtamalization involves soaking dried corn in water and calcium hydroxide (also known as “lime” or “cal” in Spanish) instead of the limestone or ash that would have been used by early Mesoamericans. The resulting mixture is then mashed or ground. Traditionally, this would have been done with a metate, a grinding stone and rolling pin made with lava rock. Today, corn is usually ground with a mill called a molino.
There are different styles of tamales throughout Central and South America. In Houston, though, tamales lean toward the Mexican variety and are wrapped in either utilizing corn husks or banana leaves. Banana leaf-wrapped tamales are bigger and are sometimes referred to as tamal Oaxaqueño, named for the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The process of making tamales is laborious and ritualistic. One must make fillings and masa, prepare husks or leaves, roll them into perfect little packages, and then steam them. It is so much work that it is common to throw a rolling party — a tamalada — so that family and friends can pitch in to help. Even if you don’t attend a tamalada, purchasing tamales makes you someone who encourages that kind of gathering; a supporter of the tradition.
Tamales naturally retain their heat, which makes them perfect for serving at parties or throwing into lunch boxes. You can never have too many of these freezable, portable, filling, gluten-free (almost always) snacks. Newcomers to tamale-eating should note that the husks are not meant to be eaten. Consider these as nature’s superior answer to plastic wrap or plates.
Receiving tamales as a gift means unwrapping history, innovation and the loving care of those who went through all the steps to make them. We can’t think of a better way to enjoy the holidays.
Here are a few terms to help you navigate this list: rajas con queso is roasted poblano peppers with cheese. Calabacita is zucchini. A tamal de elote is a tamale made of sweet fresh corn. For that matter, tamal is the commonly accepted Spanish word for just one of these wrapped delights. (However, there is an ongoing debate about this.)
Alamo Tamale Company, 809 Berry: Since 1962, Alamo has been grinding its own spices for its famous tamales. Choose from pork, beef, chicken, turkey, bean, jalapeño cheese or spinach. The tamales come either handmade (ranging in price from $15.99 to $16.99 per dozen) or machine-rolled ($9.99 per dozen). The bestseller is the homemade pork tamales made from an old family recipe. In addition to tamales, you can pick up freshly made tortillas, pints of menudo and aguas frescas. You will find even more on the menu.
Alicia’s Mexican Grille, multiple locations: This family-owned establishment is named for chef/owner David Herrera’s wife and offers three varieties of tamales: chicken with green salsa, pork with red salsa and con rajas. Please allow 24 hours’ notice and check out the holiday tamale page to order. A half-dozen is $9.95 and a dozen is $17.95. You can also order from the full dinner menu with choices such as Sinaloa-Style Ceviche made with snapper or shrimp and served Peruvian style. There is also a dessert menu for ordering whole pies.
Arandas Bakery, multiple locations: This Mexican panaderia also makes pork and chicken tamales. Order through the catering page on the website, which is also where you will find a menu of traditional Mexican sweets like conches, housemade tortillas and freshly made bread.
Arnaldo Richards’ Picos, 3601 Kirby: The tamale stand is an annual tradition at Picos. It offers a convenient outlet for picking up tamales that celebrate recipes from all over Mexico. You will find banana leaf wrapped Tamales Oaxaqueños, and corn husk wrapped Tamales Norteños, filled with pork, chicken, beef, cheese, black beans, raisins, pineapple or coconut fillings. This year they’ve added a Chocolate Tamal and Tamal De Elote. Prices range from $10.50 per dozen for Nortenos to $21 per half dozen for the Oaxaquenos. The online menu gives you the option of ordering bulk tamale mixes like the Tamalegram for $50. There are also sweets such as Mexican cookies, drinks like Mexican hot chocolate and holiday sangria mix and much more. The full tamale stand menu is available here and it’s open until January 8.
Cochinita & Co., 5420 Lawndale: Located in Kickin’ Kombucha’s accommodating digs, this kitchen is a hit with insiders. Cochinita, which also makes tamales for Henderson & Kane (see below), makes its tamale masa with beef tallow instead of lard, giving them a unique, made-from-scratch flavor. Cochinita & Co. also offers calabacitas, rajas con queso, pollo en salsa verde (chicken in green sauce) and puerco en salsa roja (pork in red sauce). Prices range from $13 for a half-dozen to $26 for a dozen. Also on the menu are fresh salsas, aguas frescas and flan.
Granny’s Tamales, multiple locations: The original “Granny” is Juanita Gonzales, and she developed her tamale recipe in 1990. The tamales have won the Chef’s Choice in the Tamale Festival on Navigation in 2018 and 2019. Choose from 13 different varieties such as pork and beef, spinach and cheese, chicken, jalapeño and cheese, bean and chorizo and sweet corn. Prices on the menu start at $12 per dozen or $7 per half-dozen. Pick up a pack of Mexican sugar cookies and some salsa while you are there.
Henderson & Kane General Store, 715 Henderson: Choose from tamales made in collaboration with Cochinita & Co or with Somos Semillas Vegan Kitchen. Cochinita’s tamales use smoked tallow for the masa in smoked brisket, smoked pork, smoked turkey mole tamales and green chile and cheese tamales. Somos Semillas offers vegan tamales such as the frijol tamal in hoja platano (banana leaf) for six dollars and corn husk tamales for $12.95 a half dozen. There is also a full holiday menu with cream corn and quarts of Chile Colorado. The store also sells local and specialty products like olive oil from Lone Star Olive Ranch and Rancho Gordo beans. Please allow 48 hours for orders.
Hot Tamales, 4103 FM 2351, Friendswood: This iconic food truck has been around since 1976 and fans can’t get enough. Tamales are still $9 a dozen frozen and $10 hot. Expect a line that moves quickly. Order spicy or mild pork, chicken, jalapeño cheese or refried bean tamales with red or green salsa on the side. Hot Tamales also offers a New York cheesecake. Keep up with the truck on its Facebook page.
Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer and URBE, 1101 Uptown Park: Few restaurants are making masa in house, making these pork, chicken, fish or mushroom tamales from Hugo Ortega’s and Tracy Vaught’s restaurants particularly special. In addition the holiday menu offers dozens of entrées, sides and desserts such as coal-roasted sweet potatoes with condensed milk, tamal Azteca tortilla casserole and Mexican bread pudding. Tamales are $24 a dozen. Place Christmas orders and pick up by December 21. Orders needed before Christmas Eve require 48-hours notice. For more information and to order from Hugo’s, visit this online order form. For URBE, use this one.
JQ’s Tex Mex Barbecue, 7622 Lumber Jack: This Chicano-style Tex-Mex barbecue pop-up uses smoked beef tallow in the masa for their prize-winning “La Mariposa” tamales, which took the beef category in Houston’s 2019 Tamale Festival. The prices are $24 a dozen for smoked spicy pork or brisket and $20 for a dozen bean and cheese. Texas Twinkie Tamales, which have two cheeses, diced roasted jalapeño and poblanos and smoked pork belly, run $24 a dozen. The bean and cheese is called the Tex Mex No. 7 and is said to taste like an old school Tex-Mex cheese and gravy enchilada. To keep up with JQ’s pop-up schedule, follow it on social media. Update, 12/23/21, 8:13 a.m.: JQ’s reported on Instagram that it is completely sold out of tamales for Christmas. It’s now taking preorders on its website for New Year’s Eve.
Laredo Taqueria, 915 Snover: This line-out-the-door taco stand regularly sells housemade pork tamales. Buy one for 3.50, a half dozen for $10 and a dozen for $19. Some of the best tacos in Houston are also on the menu, from barbacoa to chicken en mole. The tacos are served cafeteria-style, allowing guests to see the offerings and point to their favorites.
Maize, 14795 Memorial: This exciting newcomer in the former Carmelo’s space is offering classic tamales in three variations: rajas with queso fresco, pork with adobo rojo, and chicken with salsa de tomate. All masas are nixtamalized and ground onsite. Purchase a half dozen for $12 and a dozen for $24. The last day to order tamales before Christmas is Thursday, December 23. Pick-up is available at Maize on December 24 or earlier. Tamales must be pre-ordered for pick up, and 24 hours are required for all orders. To order, call (346) 409-2733.
Momma’s Tamales, 5214 Cedar Street, Bellaire: Order these housemade tamales online, then pick them up at your favorite farmers market. Choose from pork, chicken, black bean, spinach and a few more. A half dozen is $8 and a dozen is $14. Your trip to the farmer’s market is also the perfect opportunity to add local fruits, vegetables, meats and other goods to your holiday menu.
Molina’s Cantina, 3801 Bellaire and 7901 Westheimer: The chili-laced braised pork tamales are $11.95 per dozen. Pick up for Christmas no later than December 24, but please allow 24-hour notice for orders of three dozen or more. In addition, you can order chili con carne or anything else off Molina’s menu.
Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, 6401 Woodway and 1140 Eldridge: Sylvia Casares’ acclaimed restaurants are offering tamales by the dozen in pork or chicken varieties for $22. Receive a dozen complimentary tamales when you order five dozen. In addition to tamales, chile con queso, fajitas, and enchiladas can also be ordered and even prepared in your own casserole dish. Call your location of choice to order 24 hours in advance. Tamales for holiday orders are available through December 31.
Tamales Dona Tere multiple locations: Corn husk tamales come in several flavors: pork with green sauce, beef with chili and bean tamales. The Oaxaqueno tamales each come in chicken with mole and sweet tamales with raisins. Oaxaquenos are six dollars each and a dozen corn husk tamales are $27 a dozen. There is more on the menu to pick up such as tortas and quesadillas.