Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, week 1 recap: Trader Joe’s makes good corn tortillas?

What's a tournament without a few stunning upsets? Gustavo Arellano debriefs tortilla-loyalists on the first round of bracket cuts. Did your favorites make the cut?

Cover photo by Julia Navarro.

That was a lot of eating. Evan Kleiman, Nick Liao and Connie Alvarez and I plowed through the first round of 64 tortillas. And we now have our second round contestants!

Excuse us if we don’t offer many tasting notes this time around, but we’re stuffed. We tasted each tortilla at our homes, from packs obtained that day to ensure maximum freshness. Each judge had their own personal criteria for taste, but it boiled down to whether corn tasted like corn, and whether flour had taste, period— because most retail flour tortillas in Southern California are little better than wallpaper.

As the tournament advances, we’ll have more to say on each winning contestant.

For now, here are brief notes on the Round 1 matchups. Results of Round 2 will be revealed next Wednesday!

Follow the competition here.

CORN

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

Evan wants everyone to know that the losers, in general, were either “sour, bitter from additives, or lacked that supple, nearly gel, quality of a great tortilla.”

#1 La Princesita vs. #16 Guerrero: La Princesita.

East LA classic beats America’s top-selling corn tortilla.

El Metate tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#8 El Metate vs. #9 La Tolteca: La Tolteca.

Evan found the tortillas of this Azusa tortilleria at a carniceria near Squrl and has loved them ever since. La Tolteca beat one of OC’s pioneering tortillerias.

#5 La Venadita vs. #12 Cardenas: La Venadita.

South Bay mini-chain advances past the biggest Mexican supermarket chain in the Inland Empire.

#4 Puntas Cabras vs. #13 La Corona: La Corona

Upset alert of sorts. The popular Santa Monica eatery makes great corn tortillas, but they were no match for this long-running San Fernando Valley spot.

#6 El Gallo Giro vs. #11 Kernel of Truth: Kernel of Truth

I’m not sure why we ranked Kernel of Truth—one of the big, local players in the heirloom masa scene—so low but the El Gallo Giro taco chain (which also makes great aguas frescas) ain’t no slouch, either. Nevertheless, Kernel advances.

#3 Amapola Market vs. #14 La Mano Tortilleria: Amapola.

The Downey institution rebounded from its masa debacle from a couple of years ago to beat a Pico Rivera tortilleria with one of the best tortilla labels in the Southland—literally, a photo of a hand.

#7 Northgate vs. #10 La Mazorca: La Mazorca.

Riverside for the win against the largest Latino supermarket chain in Orange County.

Trader Joe’s corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#2 La Flor de Mexicali vs. #15 Trader Joe’s: Trader Joe’s

The biggest upset of the tournament by far. La Flor de Mexicali is widely acknowledged as making the best corn tortillas in Orange County, yet lost to Trader Joe’s (whose corn tortillas Evan described as a “decent everyday tortilla”). Maybe La Flor had an off day? Maybe LA is better than Orange County?

EVAN BRACKET ROUND 2 MATCHUPS

#1 La Princesita vs. #9 La Tolteca.

#5 La Venadita vs. #13 La Corona

#11 Kernel of Truth vs. #3 Amapola

#15 Trader Joe’s vs. #10 La Mazorca

 

NICK LIAO BRACKET

Taco Maria’s blue corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#1 Taco Maria vs.  #16 El Super: Taco Maria

No surprise here—Taco Maria chef Carlos Salgado gets heirloom corn from Mexico and nixtamalizes it himself. El Super mass-produces theirs.

#8 Ruben’s Tortilleria vs.  #9 Vallarta’s: Ruben’s

Most taco trucks in Orange County uses Ruben’s, and they make a fine product. They beat the pioneering L.A.-area Vallarta’s supermarket chain.

#5 Los Cinco Puntos vs. #12 Maria’s Tortillas: Los Cinco Puntos

Another East L.A. classic advances.

#4 La Imperial vs. #13 Tortilleria La Fiesta: Tortilleria La Fiesta  

Strong Beach in the house! The small La Fiesta beats yet another East L.A. standard.

#6 Miramar Tortilleria vs. #11 Hornitos Mercado: Miramar

Miramar is currently the corn tortilla of choice for the parents of Gustavo, and Gustavo says they’re “thick, dark yellow to the point of brown, and perfect for quesadillas.”

#3 El Toro Market vs. #14 La Gloria Mexican Foods: La Gloria   

Evan swears by the tortilla chips of El Toro, a famous Santa Ana tortilleria. But La Gloria has been in business since 1954, and has kept its reputation intact for fine corn. Statistically a big upset, but ultimately, not really.

#7 Tortilleria La California vs. #10 Expresion Oaxaqueña: La California  

A Glassell Park favorite beats one of the few tortillerias in Southern California that specializes in Oaxacan-style corn tortillas.

Superior corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#2 Guisados vs. #15 Superior Grocers: Guisados

The Boyle Heights taqueria easily beats the largest locally owned Latino supermarket chain in Southern California.

NICK BRACKET ROUND 2 MATCHUPS:

#1 Taco Maria vs. #8 Ruben’s Tortilleria

#5 Los Cinco Puntos vs. #13 Tortilleria La Fiesta

#6 Miramar Tortilleria vs. #14 La Gloria Mexican Foods

#7 Tortilleria La California vs. #2 Guisados

 

FLOUR

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #16 Mission: La Palma

An easy win. La Palma was one of the caterers at Jonathan Gold’s funeral; Mission is the top-selling flour tortilla in the United States, because Americans don’t know any better.

Nancy’s flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#8 Nancy’s Tortilleria vs. #9 Northgate: Northgate

The biggest Latino supermarket chain in Orange County beats a Pomona tortilleria

#5 Romero’s vs. #12 Leyva’s Mexican Food: Romero’s  

The battle of Santa Fe Springs! Costco’s go-to flour tortilla brand advances against a smaller competitor.

#4 Mexicali Taco vs. #13 El Marranito: Mexicali Taco

One of the pioneers of the Sonora-style tortilla movement in SoCal beats a Pico Rivera spot.

#6 Homestate vs. #11 La Reina Market: Homestate

The one Tex-Mex entry in this tournament beats an Orange County mini-chain whose flour tortillas Gustavo likes.

Ortega 120 flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#3 Carrillo’s Tortilleria vs. #14 Ortega 120: Carrillo’s

Carrillo’s has been in business in the San Fernando Valley for over 70 years for a reason: Their thick tortillas are buttery and wonderful. Ortega 120 makes in-house flour tortillas for their restaurant, but can’t get past the legend.

#7 Jimenez Market vs. #10 Casablanca: Jimenez Market

Casablanca is a pioneering restaurant on the Westside; Jimenez has locations only in Pomona and Santa Ana, and only make tortillas once a week. But they’re powdery and fluffy and move on into the next round.

#2 Loqui vs. #15 Trader Joe’s: Loqui

Trader Joe’s flour tortillas aren’t better than their corn ones, so they don’t advance here versus the Culver City restaurant.  

CONNIE BRACKET ROUND 2 MATCHUPS

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #9 Northgate

#5 Romero’s vs. #4 Mexicali Taco

#6 Homestate vs. #3 Carrillo’s

#7 Jimenez Market vs. #2 Loqui

 

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET

#1 La Azteca Tortilleria vs. #16 El Super: La Azteca.

El Super makes surprisingly good flour tortillas that puff up like a good flour tortilla is supposed to. But they can’t beat the pride of East Los Angeles’ flour tortilla scene.

Ramona’s flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#8 Acapulco Tortilleria vs. #9 Ramona’s Mexican Foods: Acapulco

Two decades-old tortilla factories go head-to-head, and Acapulco advances.   

#5 La Monarca vs. #12 Cardenas Market: La Monarca

La Monarca is more famous for its pan dulce, but they started selling flour tortillas in packs a couple of years ago. They advance past Cardenas.

Diana’s flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

 

 

#4 Diana’s vs. #13 Maxi Foods: Diana’s

Even if you’ve never tasted Diana’s you know their label: a blue-tinted photo of a young girl who’s the titular Diana. She advances past the Riverside mini-chain.

#6 Graciana Tamale Factory vs. #11 El Comal: Graciana

The El Comal label is a relative newbie compared to Graciana, which is more than 80 years old and sells its flour tortillas across Southern California. El Comal is a relative newcomer to SoCal’s tortilla scene—still time to improve!  

#3 Salazar vs. #14 First Street: Salazar

First Street is the okay brand for Smart & Final; unsurprisingly, they lose to the Frogtown restaurant.

#7 La Fortaleza vs. #10 Vallarta’s: La Fortaleza

La Fortaleza is another mass tortilla maker with a decades-long presence in Southern California. They beat Vallarta’s.

#2 Sonoratown vs. #15 Superior Grocers: Sonoratown

Sonoratown is the only entry in the tournament that doesn’t sell their tortillas retail, or in a bunch—to taste their wonder, you’ll have to go and order one of their Sonora-style burritos or tacos. Maybe they’ll sell you one individual one. That’s how precious and delicious they are. Superior Grocers stood no chance.

GUSTAVO BRACKET ROUND 2 MATCHUPS

#1 La Azteca vs. #8 Acapulco  

#5 La Monarca vs. #4 Diana’s

#6 Graciana Tamale Factory vs. #3 Salazar

#7 La Fortaleza vs. #2 Sonoratown