Food - Glutton at Large: Atlanta tamale roundup

Find the holiday treats at Zocalo, Bone Garden Cantina, Bell Street Burritos, Perla Taqueria, El Taco Veloz, and Taqueria Cuernavaca

You see them outside of work sites and Mexican grocery stores, a woman and/or a man standing with a cooler full of tamales and no sign to draw attention to themselves. For the initiated, this sight is one for celebration and causes a beeline toward the stand. Unfortunately, these roaming tamaleros — people who make tamales for a living — can be hard to pin down and less adventurous folks might shy away from eating food on the side of the road (although they shouldn't because it's typically awesome).

During the holiday season, tamales are more prevalent. Like ornate Christmas cookies, they are labor intensive and the kind of thing that you take all day to prepare in large batches. Luckily, you can leave the hard work to someone else because Atlanta overflows with Mexican tamales (other Latin American countries have their own versions) in different sizes and flavors at restaurants and stands. We aren't going to call out any of the stands for obvious legal reasons but the following restaurants always have Mexican-style tamales — cornhusks or banana leaves stuffed with savory or sweet steamed masa filling — on hand.

Richard Sandoval's Zocalo has been a Midtown mainstay since 1995. Executive chef Lucero Martinez-Obregon took the small Mexican restaurant's food to people's dinner table with the introduction of Zocalo's retail salsas at local farmers markets. In addition to the amazing homemade salsa and refried beans, Zocalo also sells tamales in cornhusks the size of a slender coffee mug. The tamales come in three flavors: chicken and salsa verde, pork with salsa roja, and veggie filled with cheese and poblano peppers. All of them are made with vegetable oil instead of lard (the norm) and are gluten-free. 3 for $7.75. 187 10th St. 404-249-7576. www.richardsandoval.com/zocalo.

Bone Garden Cantina's kitchen manager Gabriel Del Zvalle says that making tamales is all about tradition and family. Zvalle shares his family's tradition with Atlanta every day in limited batches. Bone Garden makes three different tamales and none are vegetarian. There is a version filled with corn masa, pork, red chilies, garlic, and onion that is steamed in a banana leaf and served with green salsa; a chicken version served in a cornhusk filled with shredded meat, chicken, tomato, and chipotle peppers that is served with chipotle salsa; lastly, a rajas con queso version filled with panela cheese, poblano peppers, onions, and salsa de pasilla that is served in a cornhusk with salsa verde. All of the tamales are a la carte. $3.85-$4.25. 1425 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd. 404-418-9072. www.bonegardencantina.com.

One of the cooks at Bell Street Burritos used to bring batches of her tamales to work from time to time. Being the smart business man that he is, owner Matt Hinton put them on the menu at Bell Street's newly opened Peachtree Street location after tasting them a couple of times. For now, the tamales are only sold on Fridays since they take so much time to make. Bell Street offers chicken and pork versions with a red sauce made with three different chilies: Japon, New Mexico, and arbol. They only make 150 and run out every time because people buy them in bunches. Don't miss out. $3.50. 1816 Peachtree St. 404-815-0011. www.bellstreetburritos.com.

Perla Taqueria is an under-the-radar taco spot right off Cheshire Bridge that you should be frequenting if you aren't already. Not only is it ITP, but it also has a drive-thru and awesome tamales. Our experienced tasting panel (my husband and tamale-crazed teenager) named this their favorite thanks to the creamy masa, abundant shredded chicken, and green salsa filling with almost Moroccan-tasting seasonings. Perhaps a nod to chef/owner Lotfi Chaabane's other restaurant, Cous Cous? $3.99. 1958 Piedmont Road. 404-607-7272. www.perlaatl.com.

At El Taco Veloz, convenience is king. It has a drive-thru, multiple locations, and a full menu of Mexican tacos and burritos on the cheap. For some reason, the quality at the Roswell Road location trumps the others spots. Here, the off-the-menu tamales are small (the size of a mini banana) and come with a choice of three fillings: shredded chicken with salsa verde, shredded chicken with mole sauce, and the rajas (poblano peppers) with gooey cheese. If you eat them straight away, the masa is moist. Reheat them later and they can harden a bit, so wrap it in a damp towel before nuking or steam them on the stove. $1.61. 5670 Roswell Road. 404-252-5100, and other metro Atlanta locations. www.tacoveloz.com.

Perhaps my favorite restaurant in the back of a Mexican grocery store (Quick Shop Food Mart #2 in Sandy Springs), Taqueria Cuernavaca can look sketchy to some since it is dimly lit and pretty bare bones. It serves up some of the best Mexican home cooking in Atlanta. Cuernavaca's cooks make one to two types of tamale every day. They are relatively large and very spicy. The shredded chicken with green sauce in a cornhusk has the kind of heat chili hounds seek out. The filling is super flavorful and the kitchen adds the perfect amount so you get some meat and masa in each bite. Eat one with an order of the Mexican chicken soup for a hearty lunch that's also a great value. $2. 5000 C Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-236-0022.

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