Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, week 4 recap: Behold SoCal’s four best tortillas!

The bracket has been narrowed, the comal is heating up, and the tortillas are being filled for this Sunday at LA River and Gardens Center in Cypress Park! Find out who the final four are and don't forget to RSVP for a day of micheladas, tortilla art, and live music.

Photo by David Boté Estrada/Flickr.

Here we are, folks: Our Fuerte Four! The two corn and two flour tortillas that make up the finalists for our great #TortillaTournament! After a month of eating through 64 tortillas across Southern California, we’ve settled on cuatro—and you’ll be able to taste FREE samples from the finalists this Sunday at our grand finale at the LA River Center & Gardens starting at 3 p.m. in Cypress Park!

On Sunday, we’ll crown Southern California’s best corn and flour tortilla by doing a live tasting and judging, then have them face off for the prize of the Golden Tortilla—an actual gold-colored tortilla! RSVP here.

Below are the tasting notes or soliloquies that our judges prepared to justify their winner.

CORN

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET: #13 La Corona vs. #11 Kernel of Truth

Good Food host Evan Kleiman is probably the biggest masa purist among all of us, so she cut through favorites to deliver upset after upset, ending up with a new-school tortilla maker against an 80-year San Fernando Valley institution. Evan’s thoughts:

The name of this tortilla—Kernel of Truth—is like a throw down. Especially these days. What is truth? A tortilla as philosopher. But it’s all about the corn, that kernel. And the non-GMO sourcing of traditional corn variety. With the war on heirloom corn in Mexico, it’s an admirable act. But what about flavor? The more flavor you can find in the kernel the more corn flavor will be in the final product after nixtamalization. And that color! It’s the deepest yellow flecked with the germ of corn. They are machine-made – so thin, yet supple. They are crazy good when fried as in hard shell tacos and chips. So kudos to Kernel of Truth for bringing oldways to our exhausted-from-the-industrial taste buds.

As for La Corona: I love fat corn tortillas (gorditas), but they don’t always hold up in the refrigerator to give you that same fantastic dense chew you get right off the comal. La Corona surprised me. Even a week later they were still fresh, not sour and gave me what I crave, that corny chew of masa, a comfort texture I’ve craved since childhood. They are the perfect tortilla to make a meal from with a bowl of beans and a fresh raw chile to munch on. I ripped off pieces and used them as scoops to catch the beans.

WINNER: Kernel of Truth

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CHELLAS TACOS Y DILLAS FTW

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NICK LIAO BRACKET: #1 Taco Maria vs. #2 Guisados

Good Food producer Nick Liao had the only bracket where the first and second seeds faced off—Taco Maria versus Guisados.

This was a pretty tough decision, particularly because neither Taco Maria nor Guisados cuts corners. Both tortillas are made to order, using honest, traditional methods. To make his masa, Taco Maria chef-owner Carlos Salgado painstakingly nixtamalizes a varietal of non-GMO maize from Mexico called blue cónico. The yellow corn used to make Guisados’ tortillas is nixtamalized at their flagship location in Boyle Heights. Both tortillas have a remarkably clean flavor, tasting of nothing more than their elements: corn, water, and lime. Frankly, I’d be happy eating either any day of the week.

However, there are subtle differences that set Taco Maria’s tortillas apart, aside from their brilliant indigo hue. Their tortillas are smooth and pliable, with tiny bits of corn kernels visible to the eye—a texture that is unmistakably the product of human hands. Furthermore, they’re delightfully toothsome and taste truly of the earth, conveying the sense that you’re partaking of something ancient. If prehistory has a flavor, it might be a Taco Maria tortilla. Guisados makes a great one, but Taco Maria gets the edge here.

WINNER: Taco Maria

FLOUR

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET: #1 Burritos La Palma vs. #6 Homestate

KCRW communications director Connie Alvarez had the Tex-Mex HomeState versus Burritos La Palma, which makes a norteño-style flour tortilla. Take it, Connie!

HomeState’s is a very thoughtful tortilla. A native Angeleno and a Mexican, I had my stubborn doubts every step of the way. From driving to a “hot” place like Highland Park that bears no resemblance to what I remember, to the hot clientele enjoying their late-night nosh under twinkly lights, to walking up to the cute, faux-humble counter and being handed a warm pack of tortillas from a nice (very blond) guy – I wanted to have my doubts. But before walking out, I spotted some grab-and-go buñuelos and I was astonished… and I bought some. Then in my car, I pried the warm tortilla packet open and tasted one. The complexities of how I feel about my LA and my food, both with their “new” star status, melted away for a moment. And I knew HomeState wasn’t messing around; they care a lot about food, authenticity, and people. Their tortilla told me this.

As for Burritos La Palma, there are only two times flour tortillas, specifically, have figured prominently in my life as unshakable memories—both in early childhood. One was at my Tía Elsa’s table in Nogales, watching her back as her arms moved about in masa and flour dust, before turning around to put a most delicious tortilla on my plate for my huevitos revueltos. She had conjured up a miracle – until then, I had no idea people made them at home. The other was in Mexico’s tierras Yaqui, just after a terrifying moment when the sweaty old curandero who’d been doing la danza del venado (deer dance) stopped in the middle of his trance, looked directly at me, and pointed at my toy camera. I had interrupted a sacred ceremony. To make me feel better, my mom walked me over to a group of women under a palapa using giant upside-down drum barrels as comales for the biggest, thinnest flour tortillas I’d ever seen. They were sobaqueras, made to go with the giant boiling pot of guacavaqui (or wakabaki) stew we’d all eat from. The comforting smells, plus the wondrous sight of these women flipping tortillas that spanned from wrist to armpit, worked. As did my first bite of the La Palma tortilla in dusting off these memories for me.

WINNER: Burritos La Palma

 

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rainy day feast!! 🌧 🌴 #asusordenes

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GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET: #2 Sonoratown vs. #5 La Monarca

This was the 2008 Wimbledon’s men’s singles championship of flour tortillas (until the next round, at least). La Monarca and Sonoratown: two masters of their craft, both emerging around the same time, both employing different styles. La Monarca sells tortillas retail but raw, daring you to cook them on the comal at home, trusting you’ll become a convert. Sonoratown doesn’t sell retail, will only sell at their downtown Los Angeles location. I basically visited about five times in one day to amass enough Sonoratown tortillas to match them up at home against La Monarca.

And what a match! I switched off—La Monarca first, then Sonoratown. Then Sonoratown first, followed y La Monarca. I took a break after going through eight flour tortillas in a row, and started the next day. I ate them as is, made them into quesadillas (my preferred flour tortilla form), and even made tacos de semillas—a rolled-up tortilla filled with toasted pumpkin seeds (I eat my pumpkin seeds shell and all—don’t @ me).

Nothing. One would have the slightest advantage over the other, but not enough to erase my doubts about my choice. After three more rounds—14 flour tortillas in less than 24 hours—I sat down and really thought it out.

The taste for both La Monarca and Sonoratown is perfect—dense yet buttery. La Monarca seems to have a tad more fatty flavor, which makes it transform into a chicharrón-esque taste I had never quite tasted in a flour tortilla. But Sonoratown kept surprising—its flavor profile seemed to improve with each round, like a true champion should.

Sonoratown had the size advantage again against La Monarca, the way it did against Salazar in the previous round. But La Monarca’s flavor is better than Salazar, so La Monarca canceled Sonoratown’s advantage. At the end, however, it became about texture. Both are wispy, the way a Sonora tortilla should, but Sonoratown was silk to La Monarca’s satin—softer, more pliable, more translucent, more beautiful.

Roger Federer is the greatest men’s tennis champion of all time—but he lost the 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. La Monarca just might be the best retail flour tortilla in Southern California—but Sonoratown ekes out the victory here.

WINNER: Sonoratown

FUERTE FOUR MATCHUPS

CORN: #1 Taco Maria vs. #11 Kernel of Truth

Battle of the non-GMO, heirloom corn darlings.

FLOUR: #1 Burritos La Palma vs. #2 Sonoratown

Somehow, I see the War of 18-16 happening here…YIKES!