Friday, March 02, 2007

Wineries, Mariachis, and Tamales, Oh My!

It's kind of a random connection, but stick with me here: I get excited when I see the word 'featuring'. You hear a song by an artist you know and love, and then come to find out they're collaborating with another artist you know and love. Sean Paul is making music with Rihanna? The kids from N.E.R.D. are hanging out with Mos Def, De La Soul, Common, and Q-Tip? Good Lord! I love it when my friends are friends with my other friends (not that Q-Tip and Pharrell are my friends...I mean, if only...but anyway).

So you can imagine my elation when two of my favorite Los Angeles institutions, the San Antonio Winery and Mama's Hot Tamales, came together this weekend, and I was invited to watch it happen. Sadly my initial introduction to the winery was overshadowed by a little incident outside my apartment, but on that first visit I really fell in love at first sight: with the evocative space, with the warm people, with the rich history, and with the fact that this vital winery, with all the romantic associations that come with one, exists in the industrial backstreets of Los Angeles' downtown. And it's been existing there for 90 years, run by four generations of the same Italian family, and weathering the storm of Prohibition (by producing into sacramental wines for the Catholic church, natch) to be the last winery standing of over a hundred that used to be in the area.

What has persisted is an old-country hospitality that can't be faked, in a space where a tour of the aging rooms and bottling facility is just as eye-opening as a meal in their Italo-Californian Maddalena restaurant is charming. And then there are the wines themselves: they produce lines of varietals and reserves in addition to altar and cooking wines.

So take all this Italy-meets-California goodness, and add tamales to the mix. Mama's Hot Tamales is a unique restaurant overlooking MacArthur Park that is really making a difference in the fabric of its community. Tamales, in varieties spanning every country that traditionally makes them, are at the center of this non-profit co-op. It works like this: backstage at the tamal shop is actually a classroom, where neighborhood residents can get hands-on training on kitchen topics and business management. The idea is that they can come out of the training and open a tamal-centered business of their own, say a tamal cart in MacArthur Park. The benefit is threefold: a historically low-income area of Los Angeles gets a transfusion of local businesses from within its own population (which happens to have a lot of Central Americans); sprawling MacArthur Park which, sadly, has taken a turn downward from its pleasant past to a reputation for guns and drugs, is revitalized into a destination for a sunny walk and some street-cart vended heritage; and everyone gets to eat delicious tamales. Truly a win-win-win.

So Sunday's event was the best of both worlds. Tamaleros from Mama's had come to the winery with a vast variety of mini tamales, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, depending on their nation of origin. And the winemakers at San Antonio offered suggested pairings of tamales and wines: several of their own domestics, as well as a bunch from Latin America, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The event had a great turnout, and the cheery crowd was elated as they tasted a Mexican Chenin Blanc with a deliciously slippery bite of a Guatemalan tamal, or the winery's own bright Riesling with the fragrant guava and cheese dessert tamales.

There was even a live tamal-making demo, provided by Ana's Tamales, who specialize in Honduran tamales (think marinated chicken, peas, potatoes, raisins) and are proud graduates of Mama's training program. See? It's working. This makes me happy.

Everyone was so happy, but at one point, they got about a million times happier. Because out of nowhere appeared the best mariachi troupe I have ever seen. Booming voices, smiling faces, trumpets and giant guitar-looking things, endearing choreography, and as if all this was not enough, accidentally-hipster skinny pants! That's right people, we're talking cream of the mariachi crop.

So, what's better, a collaboration between Biggie and Mary J. Blige, or one between inner-city wine and tamales? Tough call, but could you hand me my glass of Riesling and that mole negro thing over there while I think about it? Yeah, thanks.

San Antonio Winery is at 737 Lamar Street, Los Angeles, California 90031.
Mama's Hot Tamales is at 2122 West Seventh Street, Los Angeles, California, 90057. They're only open until 3:30 so get there early!


  1. The LA Bike Tour went right next to MacArthur park - it was amazing how quiet and clean (and cold!) our city is when it's 6am. MacArthur is so serene that early, too bad it's so scary when it's late. We also passed but the Korean place with Kim Jong on 6th, Guelaguetza on Olympic, and celebrated at Dinah's on Jefferson (your old stomping grounds) with fried chicken and waffles. And I was home before noon, wow.

  2. ahh bicycles. a macarthur park fun fact for you that i got from the wikipedia page on it: apparently when they were building the red line over there, they had to drain out the lake, and when they did, they found hundreds of handguns at the bottom! insane (and creepy)!

    anyway, way to go on the bike tour! impressive that you passed all these easty places and dinah's in one trip.