What a beautiful Sunday.
Last night, the Los Angeles Dodgers came from behind to beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, and move on to the World Series. There, they’ll hopefully end a 32-year drought and win a championship just like the Los Angeles Lakers did earlier this month — and also in 1988.
But just before the Dodgers game started, about 200 people gathered in a KCRW Zoom channel to watch the finale of my Great Tortilla Tournament.
How do you hold a tortilla-tasting finale at home during a pandemic, when it’s usually in public and attracts thousands of attendees?
Earlier in the day, KCRW events producer Krissy Barker and I gathered freshly made samples of the Fuerte Four — defending Golden Tortilla champion Taco Maria and El Ruso for corn; HomeState and El Cholo for flour — then gathered at the home of Evan. From there, Krissy delivered them to fellow judges Connie Alvarez (KCRW mera mera) and Mona Holmes (Eater LA staffer and KCRW contributor), while I handed off some to KCRW DJ Raul Campos in a Downey parking lot.
And then, we waited for the Fuerte Four to start at — of course! — 4 p.m..
How do you hold a tortilla-tasting finale in front of the computer, and keep people fixated for an hour on something else during Dodgers game day?
By moving fast — and having mucho fun.
I was the emcee to host five-minute demos by Taco Maria’s Carlos Salgado (on the mysteries of masa making), El Ruso (where we saw the Boyle Heights taco stand practice tortilla-making, with Yolanda on the corn and Julia on the flour), El Cholo (where Chef Gerardo Ochoa showed the beginning part of the legendary Cal-Mex restaurant’s tortillas de leche) and HomeState (owner-founder Brianna Valdez taught us the art of rolling out flour tortillas).
Raul offered great tracks, like Celia Cruz’s “La Vida es un Carnaval” and Selena (of course). There was a lively chat by viewers that I wish I could’ve paid attention to. And then, we judges ATE.
#1 Taco Maria vs. #6 El Ruso
Taco Maria was the reigning champion with its blue-corn magic; El Ruso was the upstart more famous for its flour tortillas, but nevertheless the maker of a spectacular yellow corn tortilla made with masa from Acapulco Tortillería in East Los Angeles. The latter was good and earthy, but stood no chance against Taco Maria’s creamy, thick tortilla, which Evan said works wonderfully with a salsa macha. On cue, Connie busted out a jar of it! WINNER: Taco Maria, which made it into the final round for the third year in a row.
#1 HomeState vs. #8 El Cholo
HomeState was last year’s best flour tortilla, and lost to Taco Maria in the finale. El Cholo just happens to be the third-oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States, its staying power derived from a flour tortilla recipe that’s nearly a century old. This was the first time in the tournament that Evan and Connie had tasted El Cholo’s gigantic tortillas, and the metaphors began to fly on camera. Comfort. A tortilla blanket. Something so huge it could create a lunar eclipse.
If you haven’t been to El Cholo in some years — and let’s admit it: you haven’t — go today to eat this tasty bit of Southern California culinary history.
HomeState’s powderty Tex-Mex entry, meanwhile, was small but mighty. The contrasts between the competitors was stark — delicious in their own ways. But we had to figure out a winner.
In the breakout room, we argued for a while. Mona — in whose bracket El Cholo was — said that, while her pick was great, it wasn’t the same tortilla she had tasted in the past, and the memory of THAT tortilla made it a close winner over HomeState. But I reminded my fellow judges that we were analyzing tortillas on what was in front of us, not what we remembered.
Yeah, I’m tough like that.
It was still close, but HomeState eked out the win. WINNER: HomeState, which advanced to the final for the second year in a row, to face off against Taco Maria anew.
GOLDEN TORTILLA FINAL
#1 Taco Maria vs. #1 HomeState
Before we judged, I made an impassioned plea to our viewers for bipartisanship in this election year of ours. Surely, if corn and flour can face off in a peaceful, fun finale, so can this country on Nov. 3?
While well-received, the message was quickly forgotten. We had tortillas to eat.
Before the judging began, Evan asked Carlos what he liked in a flour tortilla, and Briana what she liked in corn. I was not able to listen because I had to heat up my tortillas on the comal in my kitchen, but I did hear that Carlos vows to make his own flour tortilla for next year — HWUT.
In the spirit of bipartisanship, yet sticking to their ‘hoods, Carlos and Briana also gave plugs to their favorite inter-tortilla rivals — Kernel of Truth corn for Briana (which uses them for vegetarian tacos at HomeState) and Burritos La Palma flour for Carlos, who uses them for his burritos at Taco Maria.
And then, the judges ate.
Taco Maria and HomeState represent the finest in tortilla culture in Southern California, each a different taste and story of our tortilla experience. Taco Maria’s earthy tortilla de maíz morado sings of the ancients and the fight against the Galactus of the tortilla world, GRUMA. HomeState’s buttery tortillas de harina represents the power of women, from Briana’s Grandma Lala who taught her family how to make them, to Briana herself, to whom she calls the “tortilla queens,” the phalanx of mujeres who head HomeState’s tortilla-making process.
As Evan always pushes me to declare, both were champions.
But as I always maintain, there can be only one Golden Tortilla winner.
And that was HomeState.
While Taco Maria’s corn tortillas are marvels, HomeState was just better. We judges unconsciously tipped our hands earlier in the competition: While we took bites on camera of all the contestants, the only one whom we kept going back to for more bites was HomeState.
When I announced the winner, Krissy unmuted all the viewers so they could cheer and applaud. On my Zoom screen, a montage of people suddenly popped up — the KCRW community, which is to say Southern California. Whites, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans — everyone. Hipsters and families. Young and old. Some had bought all the Fuerte Four contestants and eaten them at home; others just wanted to see the spectacle. And see, they did: I think we maxed out at 200 viewers, but when we got to the finale, there were about 193 people left, all united in tortilla glory.
Now THAT’S community!
FINAL #TORTILLATOURNAMENT THOUGHTS
Gracias all of ustedes who followed the #TortillaTournament from the beginning until the end. If you have any recommendations on how we can improve the #TortillaTournament, or have questions for my new KCRW tortilla columna, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For all things tortilla, including a handy Southern California tortilleria guide and the 2018 and 2019 tournament results, go to kcrw.com/tortilla. And to support this kind of unique, multi-platform programming that brings us all together, pay a little visit to kcrw.com/give and help us make more of it, porfas!
As the grand maestro of this, I can say the 2020 #TortillaTournament was the strongest one yet. Just to give you a sense of the competition, HomeState nearly LOST in the 1st round, barely squeaked by in the 2nd round, and had to beat my personal flour tortilla favorite, Jimenez Ranch Market in SanTana, to even make it into the Fuerte Four.
But they showed up to win at every matchup. Which leads to my final anecdote, and one that shows the commitment Briana has to a hell of a product. Last year, after losing to Taco Maria in the finale, she came up to me and asked what HomeState could’ve done to win.
“Nothing,” I replied. I told her that they had made a perfect flour tortilla, but Taco Maria — which had lost in the inaugural #TortillaTournament against Sonoratown — had come to conquer, and nothing would get in their way.
Briana obviously took my words to heart.
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