KCRW & Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament is back, bigger and better!

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Gustavo's Tortilla Tournament is coming back! Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

Last year, I approached KCRW with the most ridiculous idea, in a career admittedly built on them: What if we did a sports-like tournament, but centered on tortillas?

To be more specific: What if we picked 64 tortillas (32 corn, 32 flour) from across Southern California, divided them among four brackets, seeded them so underdogs were matched up against heavyweights, and held an elimination-style contest until only two corn and two flour finalists remained? Then had those remaining four go toe-to-toe in front of a live audience to settle the eternal question: corn or flour? 

And what if the proceedings were truly a celebration of tortillas, including tortilla samples, tortilla art, and (non-tortilla-themed) music?

To be honest, I didn't think KCRW would be down with the idea. But to my delight, not only did they approve it, the bosses named it after me: KCRW & Gustavo's Great Tortilla Tournament. And the masses who turned out for masa had so much fun that we're doing it again!

So behold: the second edition of KCRW's #TortillaTournament!


Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

Over the next month, myself and fellow KCRWers Evan Kleiman, Connie Alvarez, and Nick Liao will eat our way from Santa Barbara to Indio to San Juan Capistrano and all points in between as we try to find the best corn and flour tortillas in Southern California. 

Every week, you can check online and by listening to "Good Food" for the latest updates and stories. As the 64 contestants are whittled down to 32, then 16 and so forth, Evan, Connie, Nick and myself will offer our tasting notes.  

To see this year’s bracket, click here. And check out the segment that aired this week down below!

Once we get to our four finalists, we’ll have a big ol’ pachanga on September 8 from 3 to 7pm at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (near Olvera Street and Union Station), complete with tortilla-making demonstrations, music, micheladas, food, and even tortilla art courtesy of Joe Bravo, the world’s greatest tortilla artist. There, we’ll determine the best corn and flour tortillas, then have the finalists face off! The event is FREE, but you have to RSVP—do so here

The top four finishers from each bracket last year return, much like Serena Williams always makes it into the Grand Slam tennis finals. But everyone else is new, representing the same tortilla diversity we highlighted last year: Handmade and machine-produced. Old and new. Restaurant and market. Powdery, buttery. Chicano, Sonoran, Tex-Mex. Some good, some not.


The winners of 2018's Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament. Sonoratown’s Jen and Teo Rodriguez. Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

But the purpose remains the same: to celebrate tortilla culture in Southern California. To show residents that there is more to the tortilla life than the sad, tasteless pack of Mission or Guerrero tortillas in your fridge.

And to push restaurants, taco trucks and home cooks to level up their game, so we eaters can enjoy the best tortillas possible. 

The #TortillaTournament has already achieved results. Tortilla coverage nationwide is wising up to the fact that flour tortillas are as legit as corn, and that people should care about the wheat and corn used in their tortillas. Contestants who went deep in last year’s tournament, like Kernel of Truth (a Fuerte Four finalist that uses non-GMO corn from Mexico) and HomeState (one of the few restaurants in Southern California that makes Tex-Mex-style flour tortillas) saw an uptick in demand and a new location in Playa Vista after we praised their goods.


Gustavo Arellano with 2018 winners Sonoratown’s Jen and Teo Rodriguez, and Evan Kleiman pose with the Golden Tortilla. Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

Meanwhile, last year's winner, Sonoratown in downtown Los Angeles, has earned national and international coverage for its Sonora-style flour tortillas, airy, buttery beauties praised by everyone from Rene Redzepi of Noma to Netflix's "The Taco Chronicles." Because of their success, they were able to expand last year and currently have hour-long lines. 

All because they offered delicious tortillas.

Methodology

The tournament format will be familiar to any of you who follow the NCAA’s March Madness or the FIFA World Cup: 32 corn, 32 flour, split into four brackets of 16. Within those brackets, every tortilla is assigned a seed, so that the highest-ranked tortillas are up against the lowest-ranked ones in the early rounds. That makes it easier for the best of the best to advance toward the finals—but also allows for upsets.

For the first two rounds, we bought the tortillas fresh, then froze them to see how they would hold up after dethawing (pro tip: dust off all the ice when you take them out of the freezer, toss out the top and bottom tortillas once they’re ready to eat, and get a towel to sop up any additional moisture. For the Suave 16 on, we bought new packs of the advancing tortillas and ate them fresh through the Eso Eight. 

The top four seeds in each bracket represent the eight corn and flour finalists from last year. Evan and Nick got the corn category; Gustavo and Connie stuck with flour. Each group flipped their respective bracket winners from last year to ensure no favoritism -- for instance, Gustavo gets Burritos La Palma as his #1 seed this year, because they won Connie’s bracket last year; meanwhile, Connie has Sonoratown (the overall winner last year), which Gustavo had in his bracket in 2018.

All other newcomers were assigned rankings for their brackets based on taste, historicity, and potential. 

One group that ISN’T part of the competition again this year: home cooks. We want people to be able to easily buy the tortillas in the tournament, and I don’t think your mom, abuelita, tio, or cousin wants hundreds of strangers to just swing by their house next Sunday and ask for a dozen, you know?  

Your favorite tortilla didn’t make it this year? There’s always next year. And if you have a problem with the seeding or the entries? Hit me up and only me—my name is in the tourno, after all. 

Anyways, enjoy and start eating! And don't forget to use #TortillaTournament in your photos and posts.

Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

First, some general terms:

TORTILLA

Diminutive of torta, which signifies “flour, with other ingredients, in a round form cooked over low heat,” according to the Real Academia Española. In other words, a cake. Wait, what? Yep, kids: “tortilla” the word is originally Spanish and is actually more of a frittata, as any shocked Chicano who ordered one in Madrid will tell you.

What we now know as a “tortilla”—that is, a Mexican flatbread made of corn or wheat flour—was called “tlaxcalli” by the Aztecs. The Spaniards, because they didn’t know any better, deemed them “tortillas”—and now you know the REST of the story.

MASA

The foundational foodstuff of Mexico. From this corn dough emerges corn tortillas, sopes, panuchos, chalupas, tamales, stuffed gorditas, huaraches (the meal, not the sandal) and so much more. Masa can only happen after…

NIXTAMALIZACIÓN

The process by which corn is turned into masa. Corn must be nixtamalized because eating too much raw maize gives eaters pellagra, a wasting disease. Nixtamalización happens by soaking dried corn kernels in a mixture of water and cal, which creates an alkalized solution. That, a wash, and cooking softens the kernels and removes the toxins, but also adds calcium and potassium, niacin, among other minerals: one of the world’s greatest small miracles.

You can nixtamalize at home, but it’s an arduous task. The best tortillerias in Southern California nixtamalize daily in giant vats. But many tortillerias unfortunately have increasingly relied on…

MASECA

Dehydrated masa, and what too many Mexican cookbooks call for if you want to make homemade tortillas. It has no flavor, period, and a bunch of preservatives. Many tortillerias secretly spike their own masa with Maseca so their tortillas have a longer shelf life (masa and corn tortillas with no preservatives go bad notoriously fast). Even just a sprinkle of Maseca sours any corn tortilla it touches, and furthers the Galactus that is…

GRUMA

The largest tortilla maker in the world, they make Maseca and manufacture the top-selling corn and flour tortillas in the United States: Guerrero and Mission, respectively. Next time you go to a Latino supermarket (or really, any non-Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods), notice how Gruma’s products dominate the tortilla section—and never buy them again. A Taste article this year telling called Gruma the “tortilla cartel,” and we’ll leave it at that.

TORTILLA MACHINES

Giant contraptions that allow tortillas to mass-produce but often lead to a drop in quality. The epicenter for tortilla machines in the United States, interestingly enough, is San Antonio, hinting at its former title as the city with the largest population of Mexicans in the United States outside Mexico.

TORTILLAS HECHO A MANO

“Hand-made tortillas.” Almost always tastes better than tortillas from machines—but what good are they if the restaurant uses Maseca for their masa?

Now, for styles:

HEIRLOOM CORN

This decade, restaurants like Guerilla Tacos, Broken Spanish and Taco Maria have sourced the corn for their masa from brokers like Masienda, which work with farmers in Mexico to grow non-GMO corn from heirloom strains kept among families for generations. The earthy taste obliterates any competition—two of our four corn finalists, Kernel of Truth and Taco Maria, work exclusively with heirloom corn. And Masienda is slowly entering the retail market.

GORDITAS

Miramar corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho/KCRW

“Fatties,” to be blunt. Not to be confused with the stuffed dish, these are corn tortillas that are thicker than usual and have a more robust flavor as a result. More tortilla makers are starting to offer gorditas as the style spreads—my favorite remains Miramar Tortilleria from Eastlos.

TEX-MEX FLOUR TORTILLAS

In Texas, flour tortillas are a different species from what we’re used to in Southern California. Many recipes call for baking powder, for starters, and have as much lard as chicharrón. The result is thick, flaky things that often taste like biscuits (the best widespread brand is La Paloma White Wings, which ships their mix across the United States).

Californians have long ridiculed the Tex-Mex tortilla, but it’s an unfair comparison. The only contestant in our #TortillaTournament that makes Tex-Mex-style flour is HomeState, and I’m not surprised that they’re one of our eight finalists, so delicious they are. Don’t hate until you’ve tried!

CHICANO-STYLE TORTILLAS

I’ll admit it: I’m inventing this category right now. But if you eat enough Mexican food in East Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and other areas with longstanding Chicano communities, and eat other styles the way I have, you’ll realize that Cal-Mex restaurants prefer their flour tortillas thin and dusty, the better to wrap around burritos. I’m thinking the beauties of Carrillo’s in the San Fernando Valley, or the tortillas Al & Bea’s in Boyle Heights uses to craft their legendary bean-and-cheese burritos. More research needs to be done on this style, and how it’s evolved—or, conversely, remained in yummy amber.

SONORA-STYLE TORTILLAS

La Azteca flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho/KCRW

If heirloom corn tortillas are all the rage among the tortilla cognoscenti in Southern California, then Sonoran tortillas are the flip-side. It refers to the northern Mexican state, the purported birthplace of flour tortillas. They’re regarded as the best flour tortillas of them all: thin as a napkin yet sturdy, and redolent of wheat.

Historically, the most famous tortillas from here are the sobaqueras, tortillas bigger than a basketball hoop and traditionally folded up for your meal. You can’t find them yet in Southern California, but restaurateurs have brought the style to Los Angeles over the past couple of years and immediately sparked a trend (the pioneer was Esdras Ochoa, of Mexicali Taco Co. and Salazar) that has now even spread to New York. Tellingly, two of the four flour tortilla finalists make Sonoran tortillas, La Monarca Bakery and the appropriately named Sonoratown, both whom also work with heirloom wheat producers in Sonora to get the harina (flour) for their tortillas. And a third, Burritos La Palma, is somewhat in that style and just as delicious?

Questions, comments, want me to expand the glossary? Email your tortilla tutor at mexicanwithglasses@gmail.com!