In spring 2021, I enrolled in Gustavo Arellano’s narrative non-fiction class at Orange Coast College after years of asking for his advice about how to break into food journalism. Taking his class was one of the most rewarding experiences in recent memory, and one that would not have happened if the class wasn’t offered online. After completing the course with an A, it was time to start searching out stories.
What does all this have to do with tortillas? Well, everything. On Aug. 1, my first night after moving into my new place, I got a DM from Gustavo: “Do you want to be a scout for my tortilla tournament?”
Of course I would scout. I just thought he meant for next year’s tourney.
A week later, Gustavo emailed me tortilla brackets and a tortilla directory, complete with addresses (this point is important), and brief descriptions of each contending tortilla. My tortilla pickups would span two days and take me from Indio, to the San Fernando Valley, to Riverside, to Venice and so many other cities in between.
Gustavo’s advice on the itinerary?
“Tuesday get the West LA ones and any East LA ones that you can,” he wrote me. “Wednesday, start in East LA early and then work towards Indio, then take the 91 back home to Riverside and Anaheim. And don’t let the bracket beat you."
In his journalism class, Gustavo liked to mention going into the quantum realm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a place where alternate realities and possibilities existed. He said this to describe the traveling on which we would embark to work on stories, and how multiple worlds existed on top of each other if you knew what to look for. He referred to it again when telling me, on the morning of my first tortilla trip, about the routes to different cities and tortillerías.
“This is all about quantum realms!” he texted me. “Start triangulating a strategy NOW.”
Well, even Ant Man would get bogged down with LA midday traffic. In fact, Loki’s “I have been falling for 30 minutes!” quip from “Thor: Ragnarok” would be a more accurate comparison.
Here are some observations and thoughts on the entire tortilla-running experience:
Day One: “The Game Beat You”
- When someone says “leave early” when driving to LA from Upland, they more than likely mean leave before 8:30 a.m. Gustavo’s quip when I told him that I needed to get cash? “You should always have $300 on you. Damn millennials.” Noted.
- La Azteca has really good burritos. Duh. They taste even better when you haven’t eaten all morning because you’re stuck on the 10 on the way to Santa Monica and then have to travel back into East LA. Props to them for giving extra tortillas.
- “We DoN’t sElL tOrTiLlAs.” Casablanca has tortillas, but doesn’t sell you tortillas. This was from the owner. I had to buy a meal in order to get their powdery flour tortillas as a side, after I had just eaten said burrito from La Azteca. Out of all the tortilla joints in the world, I had to walk into that one. I told Gustavo they should lose points for making them incredibly difficult to have access to. I don’t know if they did. (Gustavo note: they didn’t. Damn millennials.)
This said, there’s always room for El Ruso’s incredible tacos made from Sonoran-style flour tortillas.
- Know your tortillería. The Acapulco Tortillería on Vermont doesn’t sell tortillas. Only masa. I know this because it’s not the Acapulco Tortillería on 929 S. Kern St, which was the Acapulco Tortillería I was supposed to go to for both corn and flour tortillas. Thanks Apple Maps. To be fair, I should’ve double checked the address before heading there from La Fortaleza. That cost me 30 minutes. Apparently there’s also an Acapulco Tortillería in Santa Ana. Thank the gods that I didn’t head down the 5 for that. There are many Acapulco Tortillerías, but only one on 929 S. Kern Street.
- You’re living dangerously if you decide to park in the structure where Sonoratown is located without paying. I had never run so fast up or down the entryway of a parking structure prior to when I went. There’s a first time for everything. Big props for having their flour tortillas ready to go.
- Some places will look at you inquisitively if you go in and just ask to buy tortillas. Some, as was the case with Sonoritas, will ask for help from a manager for just a couple of their flour tortillas.
- The sense of community in battling the pandemic was inspiring. Signs asking customers to “wear a mask, be safe, so we can move past this” predominated at the tortillerías and restaurants I went to. Huntington Beach can learn a lot from these spots!
- I didn’t get back to Orange until nearly 7 p.m. on Day One. “The game beat you,” Gustavo texted after I left Loqui in Culver City, telling him that I wasn’t going to be able to get all of the LA tortillas in one day. But I’m stubborn, and since I was headed towards the 10 and 57 anyway, I opted to make a final stop for the day at San Gabriel Market in Baldwin Park. The game wasn’t going to beat me tomorrow.
Day Two: On the open road
- Approaching the loading docks for the first time at La Chapalita comes with some trepidation. A wholesale warehouse in South El Monte, La Chapalita slings flour tortillas that Wolfgang Puck apparently calls “the best in California,” cash only. Two box trucks on either side of the entrance loomed like the Gates of the Argonath on the River Anduin in “The Lord of the Rings,” warning intruders not to enter the factory. Do you just go up to the loading dock? You do. And the worker was prompt and helpful in getting the tortillas.
- When you first pull into the shopping center of Tortillería Flor de Mayo in Fontana, you’re going to see a Superior Grocers Grocery Store. There is a La Michoacana that has the same address as Flor de Mayo, 16075 Foothill Blvd. I almost texted Gustavo to tell him that the tortillería had closed and is now part of the Starbucks of ice creams, but that’s when I noticed the “A” next to the address. There had to be another 16075. After some walking, I discover more shops along the side of the buildings. Tortillería Flor de Mayo was, in fact, still in operation, and the art on their pack of corn tortilla is a beaut.
- Arriola’s in Indio is far. Very far. But, there was something pretty cool about stepping into a tortillería that has been in operation since 1927, and with a breakfast special of two burritos for $7, those chorizo and egg burritos made for a fine morning meal. They also have a tamale boat, which I will eat next time.
- Whenever I walk up to Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, I say to myself, “Man, fuck Glenn Bell.” This is the place, after all, where the founder of Taco Bell got the recipe he then used to create his ersatz empire. But then I remember that Taco Bell has served as a gateway to better, more authentic Mexican food for thousands, if not millions, of people, this Orange County white boy included. Quesalupas one day; tacos de cabeza the next.
- Ancho’s in Riverside has really good margaritas along with their great flour tortillas.
- A dozen handmade tortillas from El Cholo in Anaheim Hills will set you back $25. I repeat, $25. While driving to El Cholo, Gustavo confused them with El Torito, and upon realizing his mistake said, “Same difference, haha.” With that kind of remark, I thought he was just being dismissive. After all, being in Anaheim Hills with an El Torito-esque exterior, I figured, “Well, this makes sense.” It wasn’t until I got back to Alta Baja and dropped off the tortillas when he immediately sung El Cholo’s praises.
“These cost $25,” I told him.
“Yeah, but they’re worth it,” Gustavo said. “They use milk in their tortillas, and they’ve kept the same recipe since they opened almost a century ago. Try one!”
The verdict: Warm, soft, fluffy, made to order, and chewy. So good. Now I understood why these had to be called in after I left La Mazorca in Riverside.
Day Three: An unexpected opportunity
The following Thursday morning, obviously impressed with my record return time on Day Two, Gustavo asked if I could help get corn tortillas in LA and the San Fernando Valley. Of course I said yes.
- The mural at Lenchitas in Pacoima is pretty cool.
- The smell of fresh corn tortillas is intoxicating. In fact, having fresh corn tortillas in your car all afternoon will leave you hungry throughout the day. Thank the food gods for the carnitas at Los Cinco Puntos. Speaking of Los Cinco Puntos…
- Los Cinco Puntos is named after the famous intersection where it stands, where Boyle Heights turns into East Los Angeles. It’s situated between three thoroughfares: Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Indiana Street, and Lorena Street. The exit is off of Lorena, the entrance is off of Indiana. I’m telling you this because, if you’re a first-timer like I was, you may happen to enter through the exit, and therefore have to exit through the entrance, which, if it’s busy, won’t be fun.
- If there’s a painted menu on the wall, as was the case with Tortillería La California in Cypress Park, there’s an 82% chance the tortillas are going to be delicious. And, well, they’re in the Tournament of Champions, so point proven.
- The tortillera at Sabor a Mexico in Panorama City doesn’t make corn tortillas anymore. Why? Because she’s staying home due to the pandemic. As a result, Sabor a Mexico had to exit the tournament. Thanks for nothing, pandejos.
Three days and nearly 400 miles later: A tortilla scout’s final thoughts
The remarkable thing about this experience was seeing the history of these tortillerías and restaurants within their communities. Arriola’s has been around since 1927, Graciana’s Tortilla Factory for 81 years. Carrillo’s in San Fernando Valley has kept it going for 75 years; Romero’s has been around since 1968, and they provide some local Costcos with tortillas (But not all. Believe me, I looked!)
Their legacies reminded me of something Anthony Bourdain said in 2016. “That’s something that LA does really, really well,” he said. “It has great old bars and old institutions that are still going in a completely unironic way. Just so straight up. ‘This is what we do, this is what we’ve always done, move it along, get off my lawn.’”
I’ll never look at the drive to Vegas or Arizona the same way now. I’ll never look at East LA the same, either. The time and effort it takes to make all the quality tortillas I picked up — oftentimes at under $2 for a dozen — is astonishing.
Now, I just have to continue moving forward and keep using the lessons and advice that Gustavo has taught me. And I can start doing that by buying better tortillas. And never underestimating the daunting journey that is a #TortillaTournament bracket again...