Tamales, other foods to try from Salinas to Big Sur this Thanksgiving


Tired of turkey for Thanksgiving?

How about stuffing a tamale instead of a turkey for your holiday feast? There’s also other local alternatives for the adventurous eater, ranging from a vegan meatloaf to pizza and wings.

Many in Salinas and the surrounding Monterey County communities start thinking of tamales when the holidays roll around. While tamales are in demand at Christmas and New Year’s, don’t count them out for Turkey Day.

“Usually it’s a Christmas tradition,” La Plaza Bakery employee Jose said about tamales, who preferred to give just his first name. “Yeah, some do it on Thanksgiving. Not as much as Christmas,” Jose said from the West Salinas business on North Davis Road.

“If people start making tamales around Thanksgiving, they continue all month and then for Christmas, it’s a big day and New Year’s also,” he said.

Usually, making tamales is a group effort to put together large batches from scratch with a meat filling wrapped with masa before they’re rolled up in a corn husk and steamed. Of course, there’s always more family and friends wanting to eat the Mesoamerican delicacy than volunteers to make them.

La Plaza sells tamales, but customers also bring home its masa, the traditional corn dough used to prepare tamales.

One of the most popular places to buy masa in Salinas is Leal’s Bakery, where people will line up on East Alisal Street to get their legendary dough along with husks and spices.

“We do sell a lot of tamales (for Thanksgiving), but the most we sell is the masa to make the tamales,” manager Sylvia Leal Agamao said. “We’ve been in business for 47 years and every year around Thanksgiving, we get a lot of people buying masa to make tamales.”

It’s not unusual for a Mexican bakery to sell tamales and Leal’s carries chicken, pork, cheese and elote, which is a sweet corn. Sorry – none with turkey filling.

“We don’t make the turkey tamales, but a lot of people do during Thanksgiving,” Agamao said.

Pink tamales?

Another popular spot for tamales and other Mexican fare is the Deli-Café 3 Hermanos on East Alisal Street, which is open from 2 a.m. until 5 p.m., including Thanksgiving.

The Deli-Café 3 Hermanos opens very early because many of its customers are agriculture workers who work in the field or are empacadores (packers).

Deli-Café employee Gustavo Canizao said plenty of his customers want to satisfy their tamale cravings this time of year.

“They are buying a lot of tamales, especially around the holidays,” Canizao said.

The deli sells pork, chicken, corn and cheese tamales, but also behind the counter is a strawberry tamale that’s on the sweeter side featuring a pink masa.

Canizao said he and his family don’t plan on having turkey for Thanksgiving, but he isn’t sure what’ll be on the table.

“We don’t really have turkey. We do have like gravy and stuff like that, but not turkey,” he said.

Pasta a possibility

There’s a multitude of turkey alternatives for a Thanksgiving centerpiece, such as beef cuts like prime rib, ham, goose, duck or Cornish game hen.

For the past several years, Pastability’s on West Acacia Street has been offering a Thanksgiving-themed lasagna with either a blackened chicken or traditional variety.

“The last few years, it has been pretty popular – the most popular item that we tend to have for Thanksgiving,” said Joan Ochoa, the general manager.

In a 1979 episode from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show, bandleader Doc Severinsen famously said he wanted lasagna – not turkey – on the holiday.

“The family here at Pastability’s wanted to do a special for all the lasagna orders that would be coming in. They threw in a little bit of a discounted price for all the families that were looking to do lasagnas for Thanksgiving this year,” Ochoa said.

“You’re welcome to do a take-and-bake at home or you’re welcome to pick it up already baked as well,” he said.

Pre-sales happen on Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, while the store will be closed that Thursday and Friday.

Vegan alternatives

Non-meat eaters looking for a change can pick up a frozen loaf of plant-based Tofurkey at their supermarket, but a Big Sur restaurant also has you covered.

The Fernwood Resort will be open from noon to 9 p.m. Thanksgiving with vegan meatloaf as a main event option, served alongside corn bread stuffing with shiitake mushroom gravy, fried brussels sprouts, collard greens and cranberry sauce.

“We’ve had it in the past. It’s pretty popular because some people are vegan so we always like to have a vegan option and then a non-vegan option. That’s kind of like our whole thing,” employee Karen Paz said.

Melanie Wong, a frequent contributor to the Facebook page, Take Out and Delivery Services – Monterey County, said restaurants like to offer vegan alternatives.

“I think other restaurants are doing some sort of roasted vegetable thing. Not necessarily trying to recreate something that looks like what’s traditional for Thanksgiving, but it’s more and more important in the dining world,” Wong said.

Wong, a big fan of the defunct Internet food discussion group Chowhound, believes a lot of people don’t like the traditional Thanksgiving fare.

“That’s why restaurants that have a Thanksgiving menu often offer their regular menu side-by-side with it,” she said. “It’s just that multitude of tastes that are out there.”

‘Not crazy about turkey’

Wong isn’t sure what’s for Thanksgiving when she goes to her cousin’s house, but it probably won’t be a gobbler.

“We’re not that crazy about turkey. When I used to put on the big turkey for our family, I would order a smoked turkey because we loved all the sides and everything. We didn’t really like the turkey itself,” she said.

For variety, Wong says there’s several Chinese-American dishes that have a 100-year history in San Francisco that use the leftovers to make jook, also known as congee, a sort of a savory oatmeal.

“The thing that is more prized than the turkey itself is the turkey carcass to make soup,” Wong said. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with jook, which is a rice porridge breakfast soup throughout much of Asia. That Thanksgiving turkey jook is the most prized leftover.”

Using sticky rice mixed with Chinese charcuterie, such as sausage and bacon, is a culinary twist on traditional stuffing that Chinese-Americans in Northern California have been using for over 100 years.

“I can tell you my grandmother did it because my mother did it as well,” Wong said.

Besides Jook, Wong’s favorite uses for leftover turkey are enchiladas suizas, Korean bibimbap and turkey gumbo.

One of Wong’s favorite sides for Thanksgiving is an Afghan pumpkin dish called Kaddo Bourani, typically served with a yogurt or meat sauce.

“There’s some people who have to have the green beans – it’s like a religion,” she said. “I don’t have that. We put different things on the table. Over the years I’ve incorporated other things and this pumpkin dish is really one of my favorites.”

Pizza and wings

Wong hasn’t run across turkey pizza lately, but doesn’t rule it out.

“You know, anything goes with pizza,” said Wong, who’s also a competitive barbecue judge.

Wong recalls a Filipino-owned place in Soledad 10 years ago that was known for its lumpia but also baked pizzas. The eatery was always open on Thanksgiving because the owners said they had customers who were tired of turkey.

“They’re watching football and they’re just ordering in pizzas like crazy. That was a factoid that was unknown to me – that it was well worth it for them to stay open on Thanksgiving,” she said.

Wong thinks chicken wings will be in demand as well as a turkey alternative on Thursday since there’s three NFL games, including a rivalry matchup between the 49ers and Seahawks.

“Wings you know are a huge, huge thing associated with football. The chicken wing deliveries have been a huge trend for the last two years of people staying home. Chicken wing prices have gone up dramatically because of that,” Wong said. “Yeah. Wings and pizza.”

Mike Chapman is a veteran Northern California reporter and photojournalist whose byline has appeared in the Redding Record Searchlight, the Siskiyou Daily News and the Eureka Times-Standard.

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