This Sunday at La Plaza downtown, Good Food host Evan Kleiman and a panel of judges will determine the winner of this year's Great Tortilla Tournament.
HomeState owner Briana Valdez will be there. Her restaurant, which has locations in Hollywood, Highland Park, and Playa Vista, is among the final five competitors. It won a stunning upset this week over Sonoratown, last year's winner.
When HomeState opened in 2013, it was the first time that a certain kind of Tex Mex came to L.A.
Valdez says she moved to LA in 2000 and started looking for food from her native Texas. "I couldn't find a taco in a flour tortilla, and I thought why is this a foreign object? I didn't know it was so special to the region until I left," she says.
To learn how to make the tortillas, Valdez first put a photo of her Grandma Lala in her kitchen. She blasted music and tried following recipes from her mom and grandma as closely as she could (though she substituted butter for lard).
"The flour tortilla represents my family's story. Because when we were children, Grandma Lala was always in the kitchen. She lived nearby, so we were able to visit her every weekend," Valdez says. "The sound of her rolling pin hitting the counter, and the smell of the tortillas cooking, and the image of her standing in the kitchen making meals for a very large family and their kids and their kids… to me symbolized a warmth and a love."
Valdez's special kind of Tex Mex flour tortilla
Valdez defines her tortillas: "It's not too big, and it's not too small. And it's dusted in flour. It's very pillowy. It's not too thin, it's not too thick for me. I like a texture that has body and holds up, but it's not so overwhelming that it's all that you taste."
Every step of tortilla-making is done in-house. Valdez says the dough balls are hand-made. Each gets weighed for consistency. Then they're put inside a press from San Antonio.
"We used to hand-roll every single tortilla. But we would run out every single day. So now we're making -- at Hollywood location -- almost 2000 tortillas a day," she says. "So we did have to move to a press a few years ago. It was a major moment for me to surrender to that because I thought it would make it less family-like. I always want you to feel like you're eating in our home at HomeState. So I wanted [it] to feel like your grandma was cooking for you. And I thought that would change. But it didn't change. It just allowed us to provide flour tortillas for everyone every day. And it made a more consistent product."
However, when the press is broken, as it was the day KCRW visited, the tortillas get hand-rolled.
Valdez says there's a dedicated tortilla person at each HomeState location. "There is a familiarity and a deepening of understanding when you have that consistent relationship with the dough and how it feels. And so we wanted somebody to have that deep relationship, so they could really protect the quality and know when something's wrong… So being able to keep that quality control and oversight is important for me," she says.
She points out a few people who've been with the company since the beginning. "Reina, Paola, and Pati...they are the tortilla queens. They know that dough. It's like a second skin for them. So having them on our team is so important for me. And we honor them, and they keep the whole the whole machine rolling."
Valdez says it's an honor of a lifetime to be able to share HomeState's tortillas with the public -- tortillas made with the same kind of love and nourishment that her Grandma Lala had for her family.
-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nick Liao