Why Gustavo is doing a Great Tortilla Tournament for KCRW

It's the perennial question: Corn or flour? We're putting 64 Southern California tortillas head-to-head in our #MasaMadness bracket to see who will win the Golden Tortilla trophy. Gustavo Arellano fills us in on all the details.

Tortilla taster extraordinaire, Gustavo Arellano.

Hola, I’m Gustavo Arellano, longtime contributor to Good Food and host of the “Orange County Line” every Monday evening during All Things Considered. And I’m the Guti behind Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, a no-holds-barred challenge that pits some of Southern California’s most iconic tortilla brands against each other to determine once and for all which is the best of them all.

And, more importantly: corn, or flour?

Over the next month, myself and Evan Kleiman and our fellow KCRWers Nick Liao and Connie Alvarez will match up tortillas from Riverside to Azusa to Santa Ana to the San Fernando Valley. The tournament format is straight out of a sports playoff—32 corn, 32 flour, split into four brackets of 16. Within those brackets, every tortilla is assigned a seed, so that the highest-ranked tortillas go up against the lowest-ranked ones in the early rounds. That makes it easier for the best of the best to advance toward the finals—but also allows for upsets.

Once we get to our four finalists, we’ll have a big ol’ pachanga September 16 from 3 p.m.-7 p.m at the Los Angeles River Center & Gardens in Cypress Park, complete with tortilla-making demonstrations, music, micheladas, food, and even tortilla art courtesy of Joe Bravo! There, we’ll determine the best corn and flour tortillas, then have the finalists face off! The event is FREE, but you have to RSVP—do so here.

But there’s more to this tournament (whose name I didn’t pick, btw) than just figuring out who’s the “best.” I want to educate listeners and eaters across Southern California and the rest of the United States about our vibrant tortilla culture and to encourage those who don’t know to eat it up.

Simply put, tortillas are Southern California’s daily bread. We all gravitate toward one eventually, whether to fold into a taco or a burrito, whether we make quesadillas at home or roll one up to dunk into menudo or sop up a plate. We buy them at supermarkets from huge manufacturers or from local tortillerias that have served barrios for generations or see them patted out at restaurants or at home.

But how often do you think about the tortilla you just ate. Even more crucially, do you even know what a good tortilla tastes like?

That’s where Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament comes in.

We chose the participants to represent the galaxy of Southern California’s tortilla culture right now—Chicano style and Sonora style and heirloom masa and mom-and-pop and corporate offerings. All of the region’s great Latino supermarket empires—Northgate in Orange County, Vallarta’s in Los Angeles County, Cardenas in the Inland Empire, and Superior and El Super throughout—are represented. Smaller chains—Jimenez Ranch Market in Santa Ana and Pomona, Maxi Foods in Riverside, La Venadita in the South Bay—are in. So are large manufacturers that make tortillas for nationwide consumption—La Fortaleza and El Comal—and restaurants like Casablanca and Taco Maria who don’t sell them outside of their restaurants. Hell, even Trader Joe’s makes an appearance (don’t knock ‘em—they’re actually not bad)

And, of course, the neighborhood tortillerías that have been around forever but never get any love outside of the people who buy them daily.

Now they do.

One group that ISN’T part of the competition this year: home cooks. We want people to be able to easily buy the tortillas in the tournament, and I don’t think your mom, abuelita, tio, or cousin wants hundreds of strangers to just swing by their house next Sunday and ask for a dozen, you know?

Every week, check back for the latest updates and stories. As the 64 contestants go to 32, then 16 and so forth, Evan, Connie, Nick and myself will offer tasting notes.

Your favorite tortilla didn’t make it this year? There’s always next year. And if you have a problem with the seeding or the entries? Hit me up and only me—my name is in the tourno, after all. Anyways, enjoy and start eating!