Watching tamales being mass produced is a bit like watching sausage being made: it takes the romance out of the process, to say the least. Once you’ve seen the two huge drums mixing the masa and tumbling the mechanically shredded meat—and the extruders ejecting one never-ending tamale from two concentric pipes—you understand why most commercial tamales seldom rise above average in quality. Finesse is just not part of the equation.
Even so, there are still times when you need tamales in a hurry—say, when the gang is coming over to watch the game in half an hour. So, as a public service, I put my stomach on the line and sampled the fourteen brands I found in major supermarkets in four Texas cities. My conclusion: Only one tamale rated an A; three others (from a single company) got an A-. Most of the rest ranged between “all right” and “pretty good.” (And the quality could be inconsistent. On my first tasting of one brand, I wrote “soggy masa.” Later, sampling the same brand from a different city, I noted “dry masa.”) That said, here are my top picks, in order of preference:
Texas Tamale Company: The best grocery-store tamale in Texas is this Houston-based company’s spinach-and-cheese (see “Shipping News”). The cheese masks the fact that the masa is fairly dry, a problem that plagues Texas Tamale’s other flavors too. The beef and chicken fillings are well seasoned (I thought the chicken was especially tasty) but overprocessed. Black bean is also available. At Kroger, Randalls, and Tom Thumb.
Garcia Foods: San Antonio-based Garcia Foods makes my three favorite Central Market tamales: chicken and tomatillo; pinto bean and cheese; and pork, beef, and ancho chile (these are my A-tamales). Garcia also makes tamales under other labels, of which I liked Mama Garcia’s the best. The only flavor, pork, has ample seasoning, and the meat is a tad chunkier than the norm. These tamales do, however, have a lot of grease. Mama Garcia’s tamales at Albertson’s, H-E-B, and Kroger.
Alberto’s: Made in San Antonio, Alberto’s nongreasy chicken tamales have a nice little afterburn, as do the (remarkably similar-tasting) beef ones. If there is a problem, it’s that the masa is dryish. Bean, pork, and jalapeño pork are also available. At Albertson’s and H-E-B.
Pedro’s Tamales: This big Lubbock-based company also does a huge mail-order business (see “Shipping News”). Although the pork filling is even more puréed than that of other brands, the seasoning has real Mexican character. Beef and chicken are also available. At Albertson’s, Randalls, Safeway, and other stores.