Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, Week 4: Here’s your fuerte 5 finalists!

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Tortillas from HomeState. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

After a month of pitting corn and flour tortilla makers from Oxnard to Indio to San Juan Capistrano, the second edition of my KCRW #TortillaTournament has reached the finals, with the unveiling of the Fuerte...Five?!

You’ll remember that last year, we featured the four finalists of our inaugural Masa Madness in a grand finale complete with tortilla samples, food vendors, tortilla art classes courtesy of Joe Bravo, and a live competition. You’ll remember that Sonoratown became the champion and won  the Golden Tortilla. We’re offering another free party with all of that, and more, for our finale this Sunday Sept. 8 (don’t forget to RSVP!) — this time, at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street. 

And the tortilla game will be strong with the vendors, too, with corn fiends Macheen and flour tortilla maestros El Ruso confirmed and ready to sling out great tacos, among others.

But instead of just four tortillas fighting for the right to be declared the fairest of them all in Southern California, there’s a fifth finalist.

And it’s not who you think. 

Read on for the one upset and one shocker that occurred among the ¡Eso Eight! this time around. See the results in bracket form here

And see everyone on Sunday!

CORN TORTILLAS

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

#1 Taco Maria vs #6 Tortilleria La Talpense: Evan’s comments: “I recently googled images for shades of blue to try to identify the exact color of the Taco Maria blue corn tortilla. The closest I could find was a shade called Space. It made me laugh because Carlos Salgado, the chef owner of Taco Maria and driving force behind this tortilla is obsessed with space almost as much as he is supporting the survival and growth of traditional corn varieties in Mexico. Carlos has done more than anyone in Southern California to encourage chefs to commit to using traditional corn varieties for their tortillas. His calling card is this nearly black blue-purple with a touch of gray disc that speaks to beauty and tradition equally. Sometimes a delicious food is about more than eating.”

Gustavo’s comments: Evan didn’t talk about La Talpense in her note, but I know she loved how thick and tasty they were. Nevertheless, last year’s corn finalist returns for another chance at the championship. WINNER: Taco Maria

NICK LIAO BRACKET

#1 Kernel of Truth vs #2 Guisados: Nick’s notes: “Kernel of Truth in Boyle Heights set out to make a corn tortilla that rose above the pack— the stiff, chalky discs commonplace in chain supermarkets and taco stands. By all measures, business partners Rick Ortega and Omar Ahmed have succeeded. While subtle at first, the differences between their product and the rest became more apparent in the tournament’s later rounds, after I had tasted a larger sample size. Their tortillas consistently tasted better and more deeply of corn—not just any corn, but the non-industrialized corn of our dreams that we should be eating but rarely do (Kernel of Truth uses domestically grown organic, non-GMO corn). So flavorful in fact, that I preferred them unadorned, without salsa or butter. And despite being machine made tortillas, they retain every bit of the freshly made, pliable texture I usually associate with the handmade variety—a result of having a higher water content. 

The tortillas from Guisados are no slouch either. They’re some of the best gordita-style tortillas in LA, capable of standing up to the restaurant’s namesake stews. Like Kernel of Truth, they’re made from freshly nixtamalized masa, delivered daily from nearby Carnitas Uruapan. But in the end, Kernel of Truth's peerless corn flavor wins them the Battle of Boyle Heights— earning them a well deserved return to the Fuerte Four.”

Gustavo’s notes: Kernel of Truth’s product is deceptive, because they’re thin tortillas, while Guisados’ tortillas de maíz are as deliciously thick as they appear (try them in quesadilla form). But I agree with Nick’s choice — and #respect to Guisados, which has advanced to the ¡Eso Eight! now two years in a row but has also lost in this round both times. Better luck next year! WINNER: Kernel of Truth.

CORN TORTILLA FUERTE FIVE MATCHUP

#1 Taco Maria vs. #1 Kernel of Truth

Our Corn Bracket finalists from last year return, which is an indication of how extraordinary their product is. They both survived heavy competition from the San Fernando Valley and Oxnard yet pulled out their respective victories. Better yet, both are even better than last year, and have doubled down on their mission: Kernel shows that a machine-made tortilla doesn’t have to be tasteless, while Taco Maria continues to preach the gospel of heirloom corn and making your own masa. There are no two better deserving finalists to carry the corn banner.

FLOUR TORTILLAS

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Sonoratown vs. #2 HomeState: Connie’s notes:I keep going back to how last year I was reminded of a lesson taught many times over by hundreds of dichos, or sayings, like never judge a book by its cover, or to assume makes an "ass" out of "u" and "me." I was reminded by the humble tortilla, the most basic of foods that has nourished millions of bellies, both astronomically rich and never wanting, and dirt poor and often empty. In this case, the HomeState tortilla has no shortage of well-off consumers. Even before tasting it I thought: how has this tortilla been frankensteined to accommodate quirky, gourmet tastes? What did they do to my culture (for the record, Homestate is Texan, I'm LA)? 


HomeState’s tortillas in progress. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

I was immediately re-taught so many lessons in one bite, and even learned new ones. Mainly that I don't own, or even define, any culture. We simply live and share our versions of it through conversations, small interactions, presence, and lots and lots of food. You can't stop good food from busting out of its boundaries, humble or otherwise, and we're all the better for it. Because as another saying goes,"One sees clearly only with the heart belly."

But to the matchup: Sonoratown was last year’s champion, and they remain amazing — even better. But HomeState, which made it into the ¡Eso Eight! Last year, upped their game as well. The final difference was the tiniest smidge of salt used by HomeState that added a big pop.”

Gustavo’s note: In other words, HomeState scores an upset that will shock tortilla fans across Southern California and the world. But gracious Sonoratown will also point out it’s not that much of a shocker — HomeState and them are pals, and both constantly shout each other out because both mujer-run operations are soldiers in the same tortilla de harina campaign. Gracias, Sonoratown, for representing KCRW’s #TortillaTournament so well this past year!  WINNER: HomeState

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs #2 La Monarca: Last year, for my section of the ¡Eso Eight!, I talked about the epic battle between eventual Golden Tortilla winner Sonoratown and La Monarca Bakery. After seven rounds, Sonoratown eked out a victory over La Monarca — that’s how delicious their tortilla was.

The same Long War happened for La Monarca for 2019, this time against 2018 Fuerte Four finalist Burritos La Palma. 

I first did a straight taste test: heat each on the comal, then eat them caliente. La Palma was soft and buttery; La Monarca, wispy and wheaty. Tie.

Next, I matched them as quesadillas. La Palma is bigger and has more chew, and I like tortillas like that for quesadillas (that’s why for day-to-day use, I still like Santa Fe Springs-based Romero’s, which unfortunately lost in last year’s #TortillaTournament in the 2nd round). But La Monarca’s tortillas held its flavor against the strong Zacatecas-style cheese I like to use for my quesadillas, and gave them a dimension that La Palma didn’t. Tie.

For the third round, I heated up a La Palma and La Monarca tortilla, rolled them instead of ripped them, then dunked each into some salsa verde. Tie.

Then some Salsa roja. Made tacos out of them. Burritos, sprinkled some salt. Butter. Pumpkin seeds. 

Tie. Tie. Tie. Tie. Tie. Tie. 

Burritos La Palma and La Monarca each make fabulous tortillas. Each of them are made in large batches, but by human hands. Burritos La Palma and La Monarca Bakery are pioneers in teaching people what a great flour tortilla should be, and everyone should know this.

And that’s why I had to declare a tie and have the two advance into the Fuerte Four — scratch that, five.

A coward’s way out? Maybe. But this allows you, gentle eaters, the chance to sample from five amazing tortilla makers instead of four — the more the merrier, you know?  WINNER: Burritos La Palma and La Monarca Bakery. 

FLOUR BRACKET FUERTE FIVE MATCHUPS

#2 HomeState vs #1 Burritos La Palma vs #2 La Monarca 

This is a triple-threat match out of WWE, folks! Three mini-chains, three styles (Tex-Mex for HomeState, Zacatecas for La Palma, Sonora for La Monarca), three different flavor profiles (salty, buttery, wheaty), three sizes (big and thick, bigger and thin, small and raw). But there will be only one winner, because we’ll be having a surprise guest judge to ensure Evan, Nick, Connie and I don’t end up in a tie!

Made it down this far, folks? I’ll say it again: don’t forget to RSVP for our grand finale Sept. 8 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street, where the finalists will offer samples of their tortillas!