The Best Thing We Ate This Week: Tamales from Olmeca

It was another good food week in LA, and this dish was our favorite thing about it.

There’s a rising subculture in LA at the center of a complicated Venn diagram of fashion, skateboarding, music, and cacti, a head-on collision between Supreme-style commercial streetwear and Grateful Dead hippie aesthetics, a shaggy 24 year-old in a $60 tie-dye tee with a trowel in one hand and a blunt in the other. If these are your people, you were probably in Eagle Rock last weekend, posted up in the parking lot of the Pillers building for an open-air market hosted by the exuberant clothing company at the nexus of the subculture, Ma®ket.

But if you were not there for the pots, the pot, or the cacti, there was another magnet to pull you into this crowd—tamales. In the back corner of the parking lot, past the ceramic planters shaped like Jordans, beyond the patchwork vintage flannel shirts, Yunia Funes Mata and her squad were slinging their fantastic bars of masa from a cart designed by Angeleno artist Francisco Reyes Jr., aka NeverMade.

Tamales Olmeca

Mata has been making and selling tamales as Olmeca since the fall of 2020, after a fruitless search around LA for the tamales of her childhood led her home to Washington, DC on a recipe-finding mission. She came back to LA and started making them herself, and everyone who tried them pushed her to take them public. So she started offering pickup and delivery through her DMs, and then expanded into pop-ups at the urging of Jen Yee from Baker’s Bench, who hosted Mata’s first one in her stand at Far East Plaza in November 2021.

Olmeca’s menu has grown over time as Mata experiments and learns, testing out new recipes and techniques. She also takes requests—her newest tamal is vegan, cashews in a cashew-chipotle crema with roasted jalapenos, at the prompting of vegan friends who wanted to try her cooking and support her pop-up.

Tamales Olmeca

At Ma®ket last week, the menu had all of Olmeca’s new classics—birria, carnitas, rajas, beans, and the new cashew vegan—served unwrapped from their husks and dressed with salsas, rigorously executed to exacting standards. That’s the thing with tamales; for all their apparent simplicity, they require a staggering amount of technique and precision.

Olmeca’s tamales hit the mark dead center, balanced just so but with plenty of punch. The masa has the right texture, firm and also yielding, with a subtle savoriness that isn’t so heavy handed as to overpower its essential corniness. The fillings, too, show that balance, both in proportion and in flavor. The birria buzzes gently with spices, the crunch of cashew makes a unique textural contrast, and the roasted jalapenos add subtle smoke and heat.

Tamales Olmeca

But it is the carnitas that stick in the mind, bright with a citrus marinade but plenty rich, with a few pieces of bark that hold their integrity through the steam and sauce like good pulled pork. The carnitas are also dressed with Mata’s excellent salsa verde, which zips with tomatillos and lime, and an herbaceous note that sits subtly underneath, a special bite.

A woman approached Mata with an empty cup of that salsa verde, holding it upside down to show her how thoroughly she had cleaned it out. “What do you put in there? I can never get my salsa verde to taste like that,” the woman said.

Mata demurred. “Love,” she said, with a knowing wink. If only that was all it took to make tamales like these.

Try Olmeca’s tamales at Ambitious Ales brewery in Long Beach this Friday, May 13 at 5 pm, and follow Mata on Instagram to stay updated on future pop-up dates.

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Ben Mesirow is an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA TimesLitroMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyLos Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.