Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, week 3 recap: And then there were ocho

We have finally reached our Eso! (“Right on!” in Spanish) Eight!

The judges 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.

For this week, I asked fellow judges Evan Kleiman, Connie Alvarez, and Nick Liao to share notes on our Suave Sixteen, so ustedes readers can get a sense of how hard it is to judge when there are so many great contestants remaining.

Now, on to the winners! And don’t forget to RSVP for our grand finale September 16 at 3 p.m. the LA River Center & Gardens in Cypress Park, where the four finalists will offer FREE samples of their tortillas! And Raul Campos is doing a live set! And there’s a tortilla art class! And demos! And more! GO GO GO!!!

CORN

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

#1 La Princesita vs. #13 La Corona: La Corona

Evan said of La Princesita that it’s a “good daily tortilla with no off flavors or crumbly texture.” Of La Corona, she said it was “gordita” style (which I’ll explain mañana) with “forward sweet corn flavor and satisfying gel—rather then crumbly—texture.” Evan liked La Corona more, so the San Fernando place scores the late round upset of the top-seeded East Los classic. Let the second-guessers begin!

#11 Kernel of Truth vs. #10 La Mazorca: Kernel of Truth

Kernel of Truth makes tortillas only a couple of times a week, and Evan says they have “savory corn flavor and great texture.” La Mazorca from Riverside was “similar to La Princesita. Good texture, typical musky tortilla flavor of Maseca.” That Maseca, though, is fatal—Maseca is no bueno. La Mazorca made a great run but couldn’t keep pace with non-GMO corn. Kernel continues its upsets!

EVAN’s ROUND 4 MATCHUPS

#13 La Corona vs. #11 Kernel of Truth. Old school versus new, underdog versus underdog. This one’s going to be great.

 

NICK LIAO BRACKET   

#1 Taco Maria vs. #13 Tortilleria La Fiesta: Taco Maria

“Aside from being the most attractive of the bunch,” Nick writes, “Taco Maria’s blue corn tortillas had outstanding texture. They are by the far most pliant so far. No crumbling. Earthy, nutritious flavor.” He was more verbose about La Fiesta:

This needs some explaining. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting La Fiesta to best Los Cinco Puntos, a thick, gordita-style tortilla that I’ve previously enjoyed fresh. It came down to the fact that La Fiesta’s packaged white corn tortillas simply held up better (LCP’s were sweaty and stiff, difficult to revive on a skillet or flame). It should be said that out of the package, La Fiesta’s tortillas don’t make a strong visual impression. They almost seem brittle. But when heated over a flame, they came alive with a supple texture, pleasing bite, and clean corn flavor. Like boxing, it’s all about matchups.

And like boxing, the Triple Gs of the world usually beat the Canelo Alvarezes. Taco Maria scores the easy win.

#6 Miramar Tortilleria vs. #2 Guisados: Guisados

Miramar corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

Of Miramar, Nick writes “The toasty yellow hue signaled to me that deliciousness was coming. And it did. I enjoyed the strong corn essence and almost nutty flavor.” For Guisados, Nick said they’re “regarded as perhaps the best in LA, and rightly so. These had a pleasing yellow hue and reheated nicely with a pliable, smooth texture, still tasting of freshly nixtamalized corn.”

I had both this week. And while Miramar remains my family’s to-go corn tortilla, they just couldn’t get past Guisados’ irregularly shaped masterpieces.

NICK’s ROUND 4 MATCHUPS:

#1 Taco Maria vs. #2 Guisados. The only bracket where the top two seeds advanced all the way to the Eso! Eight. OC versus LA for maiz supremacy!

 

FLOUR

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #4 Mexicali Taco: Burritos La Palma

Connie Alvarez is KCRW’s communications director, and one of KCRW’s great unsung heroines. She doesn’t write nearly enough about food, so it’s great to see her remarks, like this soliloquy about Burritos La Palma:

Let’s just say it was game over for me the minute this disk from heaven touched my tastebuds again. I tried not to judge Mexicali Taco and the others La Palma beat in the early rounds as potential secondary options – like, what if La Palma’s tortillas got hit by an asteroid, then what would I eat? Thin, yet resistant to tearing (and dropping the precious ingredients), it puffs up well and those puffy bits descend into flakey, toasty patches that add mouth fun (aka texture) to the whole experience. As a flour tortilla meh-er, my eyes and mouth have been opened!

She wasn’t as effusive about Mexicali Taco: “This tortilla was very good. It had flavor, it had function. But, I kept feeling like it needed the filling. It was a very worthy vessel, but a vessel nonetheless.”

SAVAGE. I think Mexicali deserves more love—but I also agree with Connie’s choice. La Palma advances.

#6 Homestate vs. #7 Jimenez Market: Homestate

“This tortilla was tasty and struck me as one I could eat sans even a smear of butter or mayo (yes, mayo) – almost as a standalone snack, which is weird since tortillas = vessels for me,” Connie said of the sole Tex-Mex entry in the tournament. “But this one was that good.”

As for Jimenez, Connie admitted that it “has become a surprising favorite of mine. It wins the all-around workhorse prize in my book: taste √+, texture √, resilient √+, affordable √+, accessible √-.  If La Palma is the cummerbund to my meat, Jimenez are the trusty overalls.”

I urge everyone to go to Jimenez Market in SanTana on Thursday afternoon when an army of women make them fresh and the tortillas are dusty with flour, and enjoy one of the great unsung flour tortillas in Southern California. Nevertheless, Connie went with Homestate.

CONNIE’s ROUND 4 MATCHUPS

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #6 Homestate

Tex-Mex versus Zacatecas, with both making fabulous flour tortillas but with completely different approaches.

 

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET   

La Azteca flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

#1 La Azteca Tortillera vs. #5 La Monarca: La Monarca

La Azteca makes a great flour tortilla, but as I ate more and more of them, I dare say that they don’t deserve as much praise as people give them. I wanted to like them more than I did, and they cooked great, but it’s like its flour flavor ended earlier than it should’ve.

La Monarca, on the other hand, tastes just like a chicharrón. It’s a flavor I had never associated with flour tortillas before, but the lard and wheat cooked and binded on the comal (La Monarca sells its tortillas raw) to create a fabulous tortilla. It easily beat La Azteca.

#3 Salazar vs. #2 Sonoratown: Sonoratown

These two restaurants are acknowledged as Southern California’s finest makers of Sonora-style flour tortillas. Both make frequent trips to the northern Mexico state to get flour directly from the source. Both of their flour tortillas taste like the rancho, like a meal underneath the shade of a sun during a hot day.

Sonoratown, however, wins not just because they tasted better but because their tortillas were bigger. Salazar’s tortillas are small, the better for their excellent tacos; Sonoratown also makes small ones for tacos, but the ones for their chimichangas just means more tortilla. It seems like a petty difference, but the miracle of their tortillas is that whether big or small, the same wheaty flavor and napkin-like texture remained—not an easy task.

GUSTAVO’s ROUND 4 MATCHUPS

#2 Sonoratown vs. #5 La Monarca

Sonora-style tortillas dominate in this bracket, and now we get a mass (relatively speaking) manufacturer versus a small-batch maker.

Until next week, when we reveal our Fuerte Four on Tuesday! Until then, check out our interactive map to find out where these tortillas are coming from: