Monday, October 20, 2008

El Cholo: Green Tamales for "Gringos"

The El Cholo chain of restaurants, particularly the Santa Monica location, would fit in quite nicely on the website "Stuff White People Like." The sanitized Mexican eatery is no taco truck slinging out lardolicious pulled pork or carne asade tacos that leave a snail-like trail of grease on everything they touch. While foodie critics scoff that El Cholo's clean fare comes packaged for "gringos," I like that I don't feel as though I've just given my arteries a sucker punch after dining there. I feel sprightly, I feel happy, and after downing one of their huge classic margaritas (on the rocks) a little lightheaded as well.

Of course, one doesn't come to El Cholo for the margarita buzz alone. Or for the warm, crisp tortilla chips served with a pungently spiced salsa that rips across the tongue with just the right amount of force. While the chicken chimichangas, fajitas and blue corn enchiladas are all popular entrees on their menu, the reason that El Cholo maintains a tiny modicum of respect within the foodie circuit is because of their special green tamales that are only in season from May through October. According to our waiter this past Friday night, "People come from all over for them."

I, on the other hand, only had to drive from West Hollywood.

For weeks my roommate and her boyfriend had been heckling me for my recent confession that I'd never had a tamale. Despite my blonde hair, Orange County roots and pink skin that screams "white girl," I like to think that I am open-minded when it comes to the contents of my stomach. My 25 years of a tamaleless existence was embarrassing. Aside from the four years I spent on the North Shore of Chicago, I've lived in Southern California my entire life -- I might as well have confessed that I'd never been to Mexico. (Which is also disturbingly true.)

With two weeks to spare before I missed out on another green tamale season at El Cholo, I commissioned (ie. bribed with the aforementioned margaritas) a friend to help me rectify my foodie sin. We descended upon the Santa Monica location this Friday night on a mission for all things green.

I was nervous when the waiter told me the green tameles weren't his favorite. And even more concerned when he grimaced and called them "really sweet." While I'm not one to shy away from the sugar bowl, did I really want to eat my dessert for dinner? I hesitated even further when my friend ordered the chicken chimichangas. My mouth oozed moisture as I pictured the crisp flour tortillas with chunks of succulent white meat -- the ultimate indulgence for us "Big Fat Americans." I was almost ready to fold under the penetrating gaze of our waiter, but he assured me that "everyone else likes them." I nodded, placed my order and apprehensively stuffed tortilla chips and chunks of guacamole into my mouth.

Our entrees arrived at the table within ten minutes, and I was immediately comforted by the sight of the black beans and rice accompaniments. Even if I did find the tamales a sad sack in a corn husk, I could at least fill up the properly executed sides! I carefully unwrapped the green husks (after confirming with my friend that I did not eat that part too) and paused a moment to take in the golden corn masa within. It looked like crumbled cornbread. Where was the Cheddar cheese? Where were the Ortega chiles? And why did it taste like a pile of sweet mush? This couldn't be what everyone raves about on Chowhound, could it?

I dumped on some salsa and let the buzz from my margarita take over. It would be fine. It would be great! I would like these tamales, gosh darn it! And then, quite suddenly, I did.

While I'm not sure that I will be going green on a regular basis, when paired with the spicy salsa, I finally understood the appeal of the tamale. The sweet and savory combination is always a winner with my taste buds, and as soon as I discovered I could mess with my corn husks a little, I was a happy camper. So happy that when I finally put my fork down mid-way through my second tamale, I definitely felt a little something stirring in my veins.

No, not the tingly arms and legs sensation (though I was feeling a bit of that too), but rather the sense that I might crave those little green goblins again. The tamale might just turn into another Pinkberry for me -- a little off-putting at first, but ultimately, supremely satisfying.

Or it might just be one of those "been there, done that" experiences. I really like my fajitas. And chimichangas. Even if those Chowhounders do consider it sanitized "white girl" food.


Esi said...

The margs at El Cholo are strong! Which is really how I like them. I am not such of fan of tamales, but I had a great lunch there about 2 years ago that I still dream about.

Futile Sniffer said...

Mmmm El Cholo! :)

Kirby! said...

Oh man, I LOOOOOOOOVE El Cholo's green corn tamales! Pair those with a margarita pitcher, and a night of Koreatown karaoke after dinner, and you have a surefire awesome Saturday night.