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Find the Best Sinaloan Tamales in South Gate That Rival Your Mom’s

12:32 PM PDT on March 30, 2023

tamal prep station

tamal prep station

My praise for Sinaloa Express’ tamales is complimenting on a level usually reserved for my mother’s tamales. She only makes them Christmas and select special occasions. She never buys them because, like the legion of Mexican moms before and after her, she says, “Why buy something she can make so much better, with mine and my sisters’ begrudging help, when you can make it at home?”

I had not found the restaurant, carreta, or señora to rival her corn-husk-wrapped pockets of masa love and, for my own safety, refrained from questioning that it was possible. Now, I can genuinely say I’ve found a little slice of Sinaloa and home here in Los Angeles in restaurant form: Sinaloa Express. Though if you ever ask me in front of her, I will have to lie and say they don’t even come close. 

One bite of their tamal de puerco and I was a believer. 

Photo via @sinaloaexpress.1/Instagram.
Photo via @sinaloaexpress.1/Instagram.
tamal de maíz
Tamal de elote. Photo via @sinaloaexpress.1/Instagram.
Tamal de elote

Their chile-spiced masa, succulent temole, a Sinaloan beef stew, and chunkily cut vegetables hit the tongue like a pound of perfectly seasoned pork lard, in the best way possible. They are accompanied by the usual trimmings, frijoles puercos and sopa fria, which are a rarity outside Mexican bodas and quinceañeras. They are mayo-slathered macaroni pasta beloved by proud children of hardworking Mexican moms all over Mexico. They complete the side dish spectrum and cool the palate from the spicy umami intensity from the guisado and beans, not unlike Hawaiian macaroni salad does the same with grilled meat. 

Here they are made readily available and served with care. Frijoles puercos is a bean classic consisting of velvety refried pinto beans, chorizo, cheese, and hot sauce to name a few startling ingredients. This level of umami isn’t for the faint of heart. 

While Sinaloa Express’ creamy frijoles puercos are spicy and will knock out the occasional amateur diner, they could stand a few more glugs of Valentina for my personal taste. But then again, not everyone is blessed with a stomach of steel. 

Sopes at Sinaloa Express. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.
Sopes at Sinaloa Express. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.
The corn tortillas are handmade at Sinaloa Express. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.
The corn tortillas are handmade at Sinaloa Express. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.

It’s a well-known fact that tamales are always best fresh out of the pot, and while tamales recalentados  is like a warm hug on a rainy day, it doesn’t even come close to the religious experience you have when you take the first bite of a tamal that’s just emerged from the benevolent vapor of a steaming pot. I recommend ordering your tamales ahead during the Christmas season and picking up a fresh batch or simply ordering them uncooked and steaming them at home. Air fryers need not apply.  

Coincidentally, tamales de puerco are the dish that owner Luis Manuel Lopez and his father started the business with back in 2019, which explains why it is the star of the menu to this day. Lopez grew up in a small locality called El Salado, just outside of Culiacán, Sinaloa. His abuela owned a successful cenaduría in El Salado, and Lopez grew up a young boy pinching silky masa discs for sopes, learning both how to cook and run a business.

In addition to their tamales, Sinaloa Express offers several other dishes of transportive qualities. Their barbacoa instantly evokes memories as an eight-year-old partying it up until 4 or 6 in the morning at yet another cousin or tío’s wedding, shortly before splaying out between three or so party rental chairs neatly covered in white fabric and a tulle bow that matches the rest of the decor. 

This is not to be confused with the lamb barbacoa of southern Mexico, which you’ve undoubtedly witnessed being cooked in an underground pit on one or your favorite Netflix taco show. No, this is barbacoa estilo Sinaloa. The cubed beef is perfectly tender, slathered in red chili sauce, and surrounded by soft chunks of potato and those green olives you love the flavor of but hate to bite into only to find treacherous pits that will sooner or later break one of your teeth. My day of becoming an accidental chimuela is yet to come. 

“Everything has to be made a fuego lento (at a slow simmer), not hastily,” Lopez says. “That’s how my abuelita taught me. And we don’t cook with a recipe. That’s how we do it in Sinaloa.” 

Tamal signage.
Tamal signage. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.
Barbacoa at Sinaloa Express.
Barbacoa at Sinaloa Express. Photo by Eli Lopez Beltran for L.A. TACO.

If you’re hankering for a taste of home or have yet to try the delicacies of Sinaloan cuisine, make your way to South Gate for some of the best and spiciest Mexican food you’ve ever had. You’ll find pozole, menudo, sopes and tostadas are also on the menu and reasonably emblematic of this fine coastal state. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, order the chilorio (shredded pork fried in red chili sauce and sauteed with onions and jalapeños). Just make sure they bring you plenty of their handmade corn tortillas; they’ll make you wonder if your mom snuck into the kitchen while you weren’t looking.

You’ll find the commitment to traditional processes at Sinaloa Express shines through every bite of pillowy-soft masa and luscious pull-apart meats. The tortillas and sopes are made by hand, and the chorizo and chilorio are both made in-house by Lopez himself. Currently, you’ll find capirotada (a Mexican spiced bread pudding famous during the Lenten period) on the menu, made with love by Lopez’s mother, who helps with the business—a true family affair.

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