Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, Grand Finale: And SoCal’s Best Tortilla Is…

Los Angeles, CA - Sept. 16: Gustavo's Tortilla Tournament for KCRW at Los Angeles River Gardens on September 16, 2018. (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

Wow, what a great time yesterday at KCRW’s Inaugural Great Tortilla Tournament! Throngs of people lined up to taste samples from our Fuerte Four Finalists: Kernel of Truth and Taco Maria for corn, Burritos La Palma and Sonoratown for flour!

The LA River Center & Gardens was the perfect spot for the event, providing ample shade, a Spanish-fantasy-heritage backdrop and multiple nooks and crannies so that people could do their thing. We screened City of Gold on a loop for people who wanted air conditioning, and held tortilla art workshops. Food vendors sold everything from awesome Vegan-Mex tacos to churros. KCRW’s Raul Campos spun a live set. There were games, demos and drinks.

Evan Kleiman and Gustavo Arellano (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)
 (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)
(Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

And, more importantly, we finished our epic #TortillaTournament, which started with 64 contestants (32 corn, 32 flour) in a sports-style bracket challenge and landed at four finalists who would face off in our finale.

Myself and my fellow KCRW judges Evan Kleiman, Nick Liao and Connie Alvarez had no idea in advance who was going to win—we wanted our immediate thoughts and reactions in front of the crowd when we judged. Before the event, we had narrowed down our brackets: —Nick had Taco Maria, Evan went with Kernel of Truth, Connie loved Burritos La Palma, while I landed on Sonoratown.

If you had asked me before yesterday who would win, I would’ve said Taco Maria for corn and Burritos La Palma for flour, with Taco Maria eking out the overall victory for the Golden Tortilla.

Gustavo Arellano, Sonoratown’s Jen and Teo Rodriguez, and Evan Kleiman pose with the Golden Tortilla. (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

But, as they say in sports, that’s why you play the game.

For each round of the finale, we got a fresh batch of tortillas to ensure maximum quality. We judged the corn first, and Kernel of Truth came strong with a supple, salty beauty. But Taco Maria’s blue corn tortilla sang of the ancients, shone like the beacon of tradition that it was. The vote was 3-1, and Taco Maria advanced—no real surprise, since it was a #1 seed. But make sure to follow Kernel of Truth on Instagram, and buy their corn tortillas when they’re available.

Burritos La Palma versus Sonoratown was tougher.  Burritos La Palma’s Zacatecas-style tortilla was as fabulous and buttery as ever, and befitting of its #1 seed. But, Sonoratown improved with every round, and the tortilla they made was their best yet, supple and even more translucent than the miracles offered by Burritos La Palma. This vote was harder—2 for Sonoratown, 1 for Burritos La Palma, and a draw. Just like Canelo vs. GGG!

Then came the grand finale: Taco Maria versus Sonoratown. And we had guest judges -two chavos from La Santa Cecilia, the wonderful Latin alternative group who used to be my house band when I had a radio show on KPFK a decade ago but are now in the big time (catch them Oct. 14 at Walt Disney Concert Hall).

Before we began, Taco Maria chef-owner Carlos Salgado and Sonoratown’s Jen and Teo Rodriguez told everyone how they came into tortilla consciousness.

We dug into Taco Maria first. “It tastes like Oaxaca,” said La Santa Cecilia’s accordionist Pepe Carlos, who’s from the southern Mexico state and knows a little something about the region’s foodways. Bassist Alex Bendaña had similar praise.

And then we all ate Sonoratown, which had upped their game AGAIN.

The choice was unanimous: Sonoratown (which had also won the People’s Choice award, for which we had no trophy haha). Taco Maria remains the better restaurant, and the late Jonathan Gold’s choice for his Restaurant of the Year for 2018. Everyone should go to check them out in Costa Mesa, then stop at La Palma in SanTana to try their burritos de birria de res.

But when it comes to unadulterated tortillas, Sonoratown is the winner of the 2018 Golden Tortilla for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Tortilla Excellence.

What a journey!

(Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)
Coast Packing Company executive chef Ernest Miller demonstrates tortilla making. (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

Thanks to our main sponsor, Coast Packing Company, the Western U.S.’s largest producer of animal fats, and especially to executive chef Ernest Miller, who demoed manteca (lard) to make flour tortillas at one of our stages.

And to all our great vendors:

El Machete (hot sauce + salsa)
Mateo (Ice Cream + cut fruit)
Viva Los Cupcakes – Karina Jiminez
Todo Verde (aguas frescas + Vegan-Mex)
Eastside Tacos, the catering business of the legendary La Princesita Tortilleria
In the Cut (quesadillas)
Homestate (Tex-Mex tacos)
Twisted (cotton candy)
Churro Garage
Scarlette Bar (drinks)

And especially Joe Bravo, the greatest tortilla artist of them all.

Finally, a huge gracias to all of ustedes who attended the #TortillaTournament yesterday.

See you next year!