Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, week 2 recap: Announcing the Suave Sixteen!

Welcome to Round 2 of the Great #TortillaTournament, which is another action round of quick recaps. We have finally reached our Suave (pronounce it in English or español—it’s the same thing, basically!) Sixteen!

Cover photo by Julia Navarro.

We tasted each tortilla at home, 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.

Judges Evan Kleiman, Connie Alvarez, Nick Liao and myself judged with more scrutiny this time around. The corn had to sing of masa; the flour had to puff up or crinkle on the comal like a chicharrón.

The great thing is that the Suave Sixteen are all testaments to Southern California’s magnificent tortilla scene. Any choice here is a spectacular one (and even some of the losers this time around—Romero’s POR VIDA), so start buying them up.

Now, a bit of analysis:

In the corn bracket, many longtime makers remain, which speaks to the far-higher regional quality of tortillas de maiz over tortillas de harina. But watch out for the new kids like Guisados and Kernel of Truth, which don’t use preservatives and thus should be eaten within two days of their creation.

In the flour bracket, two big trends dominate: Sonora-style tortillas, and smaller makers. There are no mass producers left in the tournament; 7 of the 8 remaining are restaurants that make tortillas mostly for their own use. 5 of the 8 remaining are Sonora-style tortillas: Thin, wispy, pliable and heartier than a loaf of sourdough—yet as delicate as silk.

Now, on to the winners! And don’t forget to RSVP for our grand finale Sept. 16 at the LA River Center & Gardens in Cypress Park, where the four finalists will offer samples of their tortillas!

CORN

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

The bracket with the most upsets so far, because Evan is by far the most stringent judge among us!

La Tolteca corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#1 La Princesita vs. #9 La Tolteca: La Princesita

No big surprise—La Princesita is a classic, and the second generation runs the great Eastside Tacos catering company, which catered the “Tacos” episode of Ugly Delicious in which both Evan and I appeared. La Tolteca had a good run representing Azusa, which returns to being a Jack Benny punchline

#5 La Venadita vs. #13 La Corona: La Corona

Evan is more of a masa stickler than I am, and while I have yet to taste La Corona, I do know that La Venadita makes great corn tortillas. My dad used to buy them in bulk for years from their Wilmington location, back in the days when he was a truck driver. He still buys his carne asada preparada from there… but no longer the tortillas, because he moved on to another participant in the #TortillaTournament.

#11 Kernel of Truth vs. #3 Amapola: Kernel of Truth

Amapola is the king of corn tortillas in southeast L.A. County, but just couldn’t keep up against the non-GMO heirloom masa of Kernel of Truth, which continues its strings of upsets—we should’ve ranked them higher, tbh.

#15 Trader Joe’s vs.#10 La Mazorca: La Mazorca

TJ’s can go home proud that it took down the best corn tortillas in Orange County in the opening round. But it couldn’t get past a Riverside entry. Maybe the I.E. is better than Orange County?

EVAN BRACKET ROUND 3 MATCHUPS

#1 La Princesita vs. #13 La Corona

#11 Kernel of Truth vs. #10 La Mazorca

NICK LIAO BRACKET   

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

An Orange County battle among mutual admirers. Ruben’s is great for a quick taco truck taco, but couldn’t keep up with the blue corn beauty of Taco Maria’s tortillas.

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

Until this tournament, I hadn’t even heard of La Fiesta, which sits on the edge of Cambodia Town in Long Beach. I had heard of Los Cinco Puntos, which has received much love over the decades. People should flock to La Fiesta, though, because they just pulled off a big upset—Strong Beach, represent!

Miramar corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

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

My family’s current favorite corn tortilla continues its run, which shows we know a bit about Mexican food. I haven’t had La Gloria, but I can vouch for Miramar, whose tortillas are thick and earthy and make fabulous quesadillas. Gracias, papi, for finding Miramar earlier this year!

#2 Guisados vs. #7 Tortilleria La California: Guisados

Guisados’ tortillas are fat, irregular glories that easily beat La California. Their matchup against Miramar is going to be a good one.

NICK BRACKET ROUND 3 MATCHUPS:

#1 Taco Maria vs. #13 Tortilleria La Fiesta

#6 Miramar Tortilleria vs. #2 Guisados

FLOUR

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #9 Northgate Burritos La Palma

I’ve eaten Northgate’s flour tortillas most of my life, and they’re fine—but they just can’t match up to the thin wonders that Burritos La Palma makes. Well, at least Northgate has snazzy new radio, Instagram and television commercials to fall back on…

#5 Romero’s vs. #4 Mexicali Tacos: Mexicali Tacos

Romero’s is a personal favorite of mine, because—unlike most Southern California tortillas—they’re thick like a Tex-Mex tortilla. But Tex-Mex can’t match up to Sonoran-style, and Mexicali sources its flour from the northern Mexico state.

#6 Homestate vs. #3 Carrillo’s: Homestate

Speaking of Tex-Mex, Homestate is one of the few restaurants in Southern California that makes their tortillas in that tradition. They score the upset against Carrillo’s, whose thin-but-flaky flour tortillas have a Tex-Mex heritage but just can’t beat Homestate

#7 Jimenez Market vs. #2 Loqui: Jimenez

I’ve driven past the Santa Ana location of Jimenez for 16 years but never actually stepped inside until this tournament. Luckily, that was the day that Jimenez made their handmade flour tortillas:  It’s a spectacular flour tortilla, fluffy and soft and nearly translucent, and it scores the upset against Loqui.

CONNIE BRACKET, ROUND 3 MATCHUPS

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #4 Mexicali Taco

#6 Homestate vs. #7 Jimenez Market

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET   
La Azteca flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#1 La Azteca Tortilleria vs. #8 Acapulco: La Azteca

Someone from the family that runs Acapulco told me on Facebook that they’re happy that they were in this tournament. They make a good flour tortilla, but it just was no match for La Azteca, makers of one of the finest chile relleno burritos on the planet, and advancing to the Suave Sixteen.

#5 La Monarca vs. #4 Diana’s: La Monarca

The relative newcomer beats the veteran. La Monarca simply had more flavor than Diana’s with their Sonora-style tortillas.

#6 Graciana Tamale Factory vs. #3 Salazar: Salazar

Salazar is the sister restaurant of Mexicali Taco, so little surprise that their small, Sonora-style tortillas beat the Chicano-style thin ones of Graciana.

#7 La Fortaleza vs. #2 Sonoratown: Sonoratown

I had never heard of La Fortaleza until this tournament, and I think they’re one of the better mass producers in the region. But they couldn’t get past Sonoratown, which also sources their flour from Sonora. See a pattern here?

GUSTAVO BRACKET, ROUND 2 MATCHUPS

#1 La Azteca Tortilleria vs. #5 La Monarca

#3 Salazar vs. #2 Sonoratown