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Christmas Style

A green and red mess of Portland's tastiest tamales.

If you want great tamales this Christmas, you have to head south. Not too far south—just to Milwaukie's pint-size Casa de Tamales, a shop with walls packed with gewgaws including a marlin, framed Elvis posters and Pee-wee Herman riding a lion.

That's where a blind taste-off WW tasters—Matt Singer, Rebecca Jacobson, Martin Cizmar, Matt Korfhage, Olga Kozinskiy and Andrea Damewood—found the best tamales in the area.

Tamales are a Christmas tradition in the Latin world and are highly sought after this time of the year. Order early and big: We were denied a "too-small" order for a mixed half-dozen, then actually stood up by one local tamale seller we gave a rave review not too long ago.

Hey, it's the holidays—people go crazy.


Casa de Tamales

10605 SE Main St., Milwaukie, 654-4423,

Score: 89

The menu at the Casa has just six tamale options, but the specials board draws from scores more, and almost all of the ingredients are grown at either the local Canby Asparagus Farm or Winters Farms. The owner's friendly dad, Charles Maes, is almost always there and happy to explain anything on the menu. We enjoyed the Mexican-style corn-wrapped tamale much better than a loafy Nicaraguan-style tamale casserole.

Tasters said: "The beef is pot-roasty and great." "There is no reason that meat in a tamale shouldn't be as good as meat in a burrito—and in this case it is." "The masa has a perfect texture—a great combination of spices, meat. Reminded me of the tamales my neighbor from Guatemala makes." "Very fluffy with good meat but needs more sauce."


San Felipe Taqueria

6221 SE Milwaukie Ave., 235-8158

Score: 74

Not prepared to drive all the way to Milwaukie? You'll do pretty well in Sellwood, too. Like a south-of-the-border Abbie Hoffman, the entirety of San Felipe is draped in the Mexican flag. The family that runs the place—best known for its fish tacos, but no slouch with tamales—is friendly in a no-nonsense way that inspires confidence. The 15-minute loading zone installed in front of the entrance lets you know what's going on: This place gets some serious takeout traffic.

Tasters said: "The meat kind of tastes like beef jerky: salty, smoky." "The potatoes are a mistake but the green sauce was great." "The meat was dry but, magically, the masa was not."

La Jarochita

Food cart at Southwest 5th Avenue and Southwest Oak Street, 421-9838

Score: 72

Tasters said: "Custardy texture, like steamed pudding." "Not fluffy at all—very smooth and slick—but not totally unpleasant." "Too dense but not dry and not flavorless, so it has that going."

Tamale Mama's

Food cart at 4725 SE Division St., 847-1961,

Score: 54

Tasters said: "The relleno tamale is like a jalapeño popper on crack. The rest are like a trophy tamale: pretty but bland." "The chili is really nice but the masa tastes like wadded-up paper."

Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon's

16225 NE Glisan St., 255-4356

Score: 48

Tasters said: "The banana tamale is gooey and looks stomped on." "The masa is bland but the purple salsa is super good."

Salvadoran Pupusas and Tamales

Food cart at Southwest 4th Avenue and Hall Street, 541-279-1938

Score: 32

Tasters said: “Tastes like condensed Campbell’s chicken noodle soup—like you opened the can and ate the sludge at the bottom.” “Slimy.”