Taco Maria wins the Golden Tortilla in KCRW & Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament

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Taco Maria takes home the gold. Photo credit: Dustin Downing

Another year, another thrilling finale for the second edition of my KCRW #TortillaTournament!

New setting: at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, just across from Olvera Street. Some new vendors: El Ruso and Macheen drew long lines for their spectacular Tijuana-style and Alta California tacos, respectively. Two new finalists: HomeState and La Monarca Bakery showed up to battle in the flour tortilla category. And a slightly new format: five finalists instead of the Fuerte Four.

But the same commitment to excellence remained. And so did the finalists’ desire to win the Golden Tortilla.

And a hungry, happy crowd to cheer everyone on.

Tortilla TournamentTortilla painting. Photo credit: Dustin Downing
Tortilla QueenTortilla art on full display. Photo credit: Dustin Downing

The competition was fierce. Taco Maria and Kernel of Truth returned in the corn category, their tortillas even better than last year. Burritos La Palma also returned, now facing off against HomeState and La Monarca in a triple-threat flour match that rivaled Triple H versus The Rock versus Kurt Angle. All the finalists deftly handled long lines of people eager to try the best tortillas in Southern California. 

After tasting them, folks lounged around in LA Plaza’s ample grounds, dug the cumbias and rancheras spun by Raul Campos, and did tortilla art (which is exactly what it sounds like: adults and children alike painted on tortillas) gracias to the titan (and Tin-Tan!) of Tortillas himself, Joe Bravo

For the finale, the contenders had to prepare fresh tortillas and present them as is. No butter. No salt. No salsa. Just the plain, unadorned tortilla desnuda. And they were presented fresh to the judges: myself, Good Food host Evan Kleiman, Good Food producer, Nick Liao, and KCRW communications chingona Connie Alvarez.

And joining us as a guest judge was comic genius Cristela Alonzo, who kept everyone rolling in laughter with her witty humor and tortilla insight (of one tortilla, she said she’d rather have it saved than her if they were both on the Titanic).

blue cornA beautiful blue corn tortilla from Taco Maria. Photo credit: Dustin Downing

In corn, Kernel of Truth’s sturdy, sweet yellow tortilla (made from non-GMO American corn) proved a minor miracle, given they machine-make and mass produce them (they also offered delicious blue and an amazing pink corn tortilla that weren’t eligible for the competition). But Taco Maria’s handmade blue (made from heirloom corn sourced from Mexico), thick and earthy yet somehow pillowy, was just better. 

As someone who has enjoyed the James Beard-nominated and Michelin-starred restaurant since it was a taco truck rumbling around Orange County, it was awesome to see Taco Maria not only live up to its billing, but step up their game. Chef Carlos Salgado is always a talent—but when the pressure is on, he delivers like Madison Bumgarner (may I change this metaphor to Clayton Kershaw this time next year!). The vote was 4-1 for Taco Maria. That said, you should buy Kernel of Truth, especially at Sara’s Market in City Terrace, because the only way you can enjoy Taco Maria’s tortillas for now is at their restaurant.

CORN TORTILLA WINNER: Taco Maria.

For flour, it was three distinct styles: the wheaty Sonoran of La Monarca, the powdery Tex-Mex of HomeState and Burritos La Palma’s chewy zacatecano stunners. 

This one took more deliberation than the corn round. La Monarca (which lost in the ¡Eso Eight! last year to eventual winner Sonoratown) made it into the Fuerte Five on the strength of its flavor, one so savory yet sweet that Connie compared it to a croissant. But she picked Burritos La Palma, which was stretchier and had more butter (even though they use vegetable shortening instead of lard). I love Burritos La Palma, especially since they’re from my Mexican hometown of Jerez, but La Monarca was just better. 

Yet they both lost to HomeState, which folks can’t chalk up to the Texan bias of Cristela (Rio Grande Valley) and Nick (Houston). If anything, they were tougher on HomeState, given they know what’s a good Tex-Mex tortilla—and HomeState’s thick, salty, flaky essence got their votes. Evan could’ve tied the results, but her enthusiasm for HomeState pushed them into the final.

FLOUR TORTILLA WINNER: HomeState 

For the final showdown, Evan and others brought up a salient point: Why must there be just one winner? Why can’t we declare a Corn winner and Flour winner, and leave them to glory?

As the founder of the #TortillaTournament, I had a simple response: No. 

Flour and corn tortillas might be like comparing apples to oranges — but the latter are fruits, no? Similarly, corn and flour tortillas are vastly different — but they’re still both tortillas. And so, to paraphrase Highlander, there can be only one Golden Tortilla. 

Before we announced the winner, we gave thanks to our main sponsor, Coast Packing Co. (makers of the best lard around, especially their VIVA brand) and LA Plaza for hosting us. We also commemorated three giants of Southern California tortilla culture who have passed away in the past year: Francisco Ramirez of La Princesita Tortilleria in Boyle Heights (whose children now run, and who were at the #TortillaTournament with their delicious Eastside Tacos), Ernest Miller (the former corporate chef at Coast Packing, who tragically died a week after last year’s Tortilla Tournament), and my late, great mami. Instead of a moment of silence for them, though, we gave the faithful departed a long, loud cheer — because who wants to be quiet when making or eating tortillas?

The final tasting went fast.

HomeState’s flour tortillas are magnificent, and I’m so glad that they’re teaching Southern California that Tex-Mex food isn’t an abomination. They won the people's choice award.  

But Taco Maria, which lost last year to Sonoratown in the grand finale, came to win. 

No less than a guest guest judge, Raul Campos, put it best: His family is from Sonora, birthplace of the flour tortilla. He loved HomeState’s entry. But Taco Maria’s blue corn tortillas were just better—a true beast.

As I said multiple times during the judging, you cannot go wrong with any of the tortillas that made our Suave 16. Patronize them all, and support tortilla culture in Southern California.

But if you want the best corn tortilla, make a reservation at Taco Maria. For the best flour, swing by any HomeState.

And to try the winner of the 2019 Golden Tortilla for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Tortilla Excellence, get thee to Taco Maria.

Golden Tortilla Winner: Taco Maria

Gracias to everyone who came to the finale, and for caring so much about eating good tortillas. Got feedback? Email me at mexicanwithglasses@gmail.com

Otherwise, we shall return next year — same tortilla time, same tortilla channel.