Great Food Search: Tamales

Jan 28, 2017 | 2017 Articles, Terrance V. Mc Arthur, The Great Food Search

by Terrance Mc Arthur

Our roving food critic Terrance Mc Arthur continues his search for great food in Sanger and the surrounding communities. Check out more Great Food Search here!

Tamales—friendly little bundles of cornmeal and good stuff, wrapped and steamed in corn husks. Yummy stuff, and that is the subject of this Great Food Search. I go out to restaurants and other food venues, reporting what is best and what’s the rest.

There’s a problem with writing about tamales. The problem is—and this is a truth most people know in their hearts—no restaurant makes tamales as good as homemade. The lady with an ice chest in the parking lot sells tamales better than you’ll get at any sit-down establishment.

Cristal Bakery and Restaurant—704 O St., Sanger
I’ve lived in the Sanger area for decades, but I’d never stepped foot in Cristal Bakery. It’s not like I didn’t know where it was; it’s down the block from the post office and across from the Bank of America. I’ve heard people praising it for ages, but I just never tried it.


A classic pork tamale from Cristal Bakery in Sanger.

I felt like I was in the culinary version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Shelves were loaded with Mexican pastries in Easter-egg hues. Crispy crusts had sliced openings with jalapenos peeking out like terrorists from behind bars. Wedged into one end is a taqueria-type counter where starry-eyed people queue up to order from a decent variety of dishes. I was there to buy a tamale.

After peeling the corn husk, I cut into a firm-but-yielding layer of masa, revealing pulled pork with a deep-sauced brown tone. It was tasty, tender, and…did I say tasty? It wasn’t spicy, but the flavor lingered. Now that I have been to Cristal, it won’t be decades until the next time. I want to try the rest of the menu.

Velasco’s Mexican Restaurant—641 Academy Ave., Sanger
Velasco’s was one of my first food reviews for Kings River Life, and it’s still a go-to location for me. The main dining room is happy and noisy in a good way, with lots of family conversations and clumps of friends. Velasco’s has friendly tamales. Mine had shredded beef with a comforting brown sauce: a touch of spice and a plate of rice and refried beans that spelled comfort.


A sauce-y shredded beef tamale from Velasco’s in Sanger.

State Foods Supermarket—237 Academy Ave., Sanger
A former Save Mart store, State Foods features Hispanic products, and has a large area given over to food to go—or sit and eat.


Pork and beef tamales from State Foods Supermarket in Sanger.

I tried the beef and the pork, great bargains. Pretty close to homemade. I grab a horchata while I’m there, watching the rice drink get dippered up out of its massive glass jar.

Casa de Tamales—609 E. Olive Ave. and 938 Fulton Mall, Fresno
What started as a steamer cart is now a pair of brick-and-mortar restaurants, and the product has driven the progress. Non-GMO corn ground in their own mill, great meat, terrific vegan and vegetarian offerings, and it’s lard-free. Liz Sanchez takes pride in her mini-empire, and it’s there for the tasting.


Casa de Tamales in Fresno is home to these tamales, chicken and spinach-artichoke.

My favorite is the Spinach & Artichoke, so soft to bite into, filled with veggie goodness and yummy potato. I’m omnivorous, so I like to pair it with the Shredded Beef, oozing with guajillo sauce, and I douse it with a look-out-taste-buds guacamole sauce. The sauces are a big draw, each one paired to its tamale companion with care worthy of a master wine steward.

The Bottom Line—What do I think?
It’s like Pokemon—gotta catch them all! Cristal has great atmosphere, Casa has the best selection, State Foods is convenient, and Velasco’s has a family vibe. My top of the pack is still Casa de Tamales, where I can get things I’ll never find anywhere else.

Check out more food articles and more of Terrance’s Great Food Search column in our Food Fun section. And check out a KRL staff profile this week on Terrance!

Terrance V. Mc Arthur is a Community Librarian for the WoW! (WithOut Walls) Division of the Fresno County Public Library, roaming the Valley to meet the public’s information needs.


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