I have friends who are great hole-in-the-wall scouts for me, alerting me when some humble place that serves great food at a decent price is worth some ink. Hole-in-the-wall diners figure, perhaps correctly, that when the staff is spending little creative energies on the decor, they have plenty of time to focus on the quality of the food.
Or maybe, like me, they’re just cheap. Sometimes we’ve all got more month than money and it’s for moments like those that Grandma’s Tamales was invented. There are now two locations in town: One at 100 Bernard St., which opened earlier this year, and the one we visited at 201 E. California Ave., just east of the intersection with Union Avenue. If you crave authentic, home-cooked Mexican food and don’t mind sitting in ancient old laminated booths under a tarp (no AC, folks — not at these prices), this is the place for you.
Friends on social media who told me about the place loved the menudo, which has a nice spicy kick, and when we visited on a Saturday I saw a lot of empty bowls near the trash bin where you stack up the reusable bowls and baskets. I ordered the chili verde plate ($6.99) while my companion got a plate with some of those namesake tamales ($5.99), served with rice and beans. On previous visits, I had tried the taco plate ($5.99) to sample the chicken, asada and carnitas and the nachos with chicken on top one time and carnitas on top on another ($6.99). The chips have the homemade crunchiness and imperfections that you’d expect at a restaurant like this, and get ready for a generous spread of guacamole and sour cream on top. All the meals made me understand the justifiable enthusiasm of my friends.
My favorite has to be the carnitas, which is very crispy, very stringy and perfect in tacos, nachos or quesadillas. I wish they had just a plate of it with rice and beans on the menu. Didn’t see it on the wall. And tucking it into one of the made-on-the-spot flour tortillas is just a slice of heaven. During a Saturday visit, we saw two women out on the patio doing the endless routine labor necessary for fresh-made tortillas. I’m sure they’re available on weekdays, too, but we just didn’t see them out there toiling on a Friday. One warning: You may have to ask for the tortillas, as we weren’t given them with the chili verde plate. It’s really worth asserting yourself. Trust me on that.
I enjoyed the refried beans, too, which had a thin, soupy consistency yet with some whole beans left in the stock. Not what you get at most Mexican restaurants. Each plate is also crowned with a lime wedge (a spritz of that is the perfect finishing touch for any of the meats) and sliced radishes. The rice is slightly pink and perfectly moist.
My chili verde was different than what most restaurants serve, too, stringy (not chunky), sometimes crispy in a thin, moderately spicy green chili soup. I wondered if they tossed leftover carnitas in there in the process. Next time I’ll try it on the nachos, as it would be perfect on top of a plate of chips.
I saved the best for last: my companion’s tamales. She ordered the chicken version, and they were presented still inside the husk to keep the masa moist. Smart move. The chicken inside was stringy and mixed with the smallest, shortest strips of green peppers, which added an amazing flavor. Around Christmastime when grandmas all over Kern County start bragging about the quality of their tamales, go grab some of these ($19.50 for a dozen) and tell them your “Grandma” made them. By my reading of the law, it doesn’t have to be a blood relative. You can choose from chicken or four other options: cheese with jalapeno, pork, pineapple or sweet (i.e., strawberry).
Grandma’s, as we mentioned, is not a slick operation, though on our Saturday midday visit the parking lot was full as were most of the booths, chairs of various types and scant inside tables near the counter where you order. They do bring the food out to you when it’s ready and it’s usually pretty fast. We will be back to try the tortas, breakfast burritos and birria ($10.99), the Jalisco stew that can be made with most any meat, including goat. I didn’t ask what they used here, but at another table it looked really appealing.
With the Mexican radio playing and all the families at the tables, two jugs of horchata and pina on the table with scoops for self-service refills of drinks, there was a simple charm to the atmosphere. Please note the hours — it closes early so it’s not a destination for post-drinking taco runs. Grandma wouldn’t condone that sort of thing.
Grandma’s Tamales can be recommended for a fine dining experience.