Tortilla Tournament, Week 4: Expected, Unexpected Winners on the Road to Fuerte Four!

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A stack of finished tortillas at Sonoratown. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Just a month ago, we had 64 champion-caliber tortillas — 32 corn, 32 flour — before us in our annual KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament

Now, only four remain.

Every year features powerhouse performances, memorable upsets, and an expansion of the tortilla vernacular and history of Southern California. But this year was particularly memorable because it was our Tournament of Champions, one where each contestant was already a winner because they had been victors in one of our past three #TortillaTournament editions.

But I don’t run an everyone-gets-a-trophy outfit, folks. There can be only one Golden Tortilla, and we will determine who it is this Sunday at Smorgasburg at the Row DTLA. 

The doors open at 10 a.m., and there will be live tortilla judging of our Fuerte Four finalists at noon and 1 p.m., with the grand finale at 2 p.m. Two of our finalists will sell food and tortillas, while the other two will offer free samples for the first 200 KCRW members who ask for one (be kind, and share one tortilla with your group). There will be an Ask a Tortilla Expert booth, music spun by KCRW DJs José Galvan and Raul Campos, and other tortilla surprises as everyone excitedly awaits the face-off between the finalists.

And who will those finalists be? Glad you asked...

Corn Tortilla Bracket 

Judge: Gustavo Arellano, LA Times columnist and KCRW contributor

The results

No. 1 Taco Maria vs. No. 15 Trader Joe’s:
Skeptics have thrown all sorts of malarkey at myself and KCRW because of Trader Joe’s improbable run this year. If it was a local tortilleria, fans would be cheering on a No. 15 seed that stunned the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, something that has NEVER happened before in the seeded sports playoffs that inspired #TortillaTournament. One shocking upset? Sure. Two? Impossible. Three? Never. But it happened in this year’s Tortilla Tournament of Champions… and no one’s happy because it’s a multimillion-dollar corporation who’s doing it.

So since it’s Trader Joe’s — performative shopping for people who can’t afford Erewhon and don’t care for Whole Foods’ Bezos-fication — there’s obviously a nefarious reason for its streak, goes the skeptics. KCRW is too whitewashed. Trader Joe’s engaged in payola. Gustavo has no idea what a good tortilla tastes like.

As they say in Mexico City, no manchen, güeyes.

Trader Joe’s went as far as it did because it’s a legit great corn tortilla that miraculously concentrates the intense masa flavors of a gordita-style tortilla into a thin one. There was no lobbying involved by them, mostly because we never tell restaurants and tortillerías that they’re included in the #TortillaTournament until the bracket is released.

More importantly, people who bash Trader Joe’s corn tortillas for supposedly being whitewashed imitators of the real pinche deal don’t know Trader Joe’s — namely, that their genius is getting co-packers to make products for them under the Trader Joe’s label but never publicly disclosing that relationship. That’s what’s happening here — a Southern California tortilleria run by a Mexican family is making their great corn tortillas (I have an idea of who they are — but I ain’t saying). Hate on Trader Joe’s entry this year, you’re hating on local tortillas — and who’d want that on their corn conscience?

Everyone should try them — they’re spectacular. And they stood no chance against Taco Maria’s handmade blue corn tortillas, which taste supernatural and have now made the Fuerte Four four years in a row — a feat no one else has achieved. 

Winner: Taco Maria

Gustavo’s takeaway: Taco Maria deservedly maintained its Michelin star in the latest edition of the French culinary guide. They no longer sell tacos a la carte, because they don’t have to: order one of their entrees for dinners, and get on their magic tortilla ride. Now, if they can only open up a tortillería...

Judge: Connie Alvarez, KCRW Communications Director

The results

No. 9 Tallula’s vs. No. 3 La Princesita:
On taste and texture, Tallula's is the winner for my bracket. I'll be honest, I didn't want to pick a place that was hard to get to, a little too high-end, and restaurant-made as the winner (because you have to special order). But, you gotta trust your tastebuds!

Winner: Tallula’s

Gustavo’s takeaway: Congrats to La Princesita for an awesome run, and proof — like Kernel of Truth Organics in years past — that you can make a machine-made, mass-produced tortilla that nevertheless maintains its taste, integrity, and respect to the ancestors (I’ll disclose one of their big secrets in an article later this week). But Tallula’s uses high-end masa for their tortillas, which are handmade — two attributes that are huge advantages in the taste test against machine-made ones. Better luck next year, La Princesita, whose cool T-shirt I’m wearing right now haha.

Corn Fuerte Four Matchup 

No.1 Taco Maria vs. No. 9 Tallula’s

Gustavo’s Preview: Tallula’s is the second-lowest seed ever to make it to the Fuerte Four, but don’t even think of calling them an underdog. Jeremy Fox is a longtime celebrity chef in Los Angeles (someone tell me how Rustic Canyon is, because I’ve never been able to score a reservation), and he sources the masa for Tallula’s blue corn tortillas from the same place Taco María does: Masienda, which has emerged over the past couple of years as the place for high-end restaurants to get high-end masa. 

Taco Maria is the eternal titan in the #TortillaTournament — but now they’re meeting a virtual twin in Tallula’s. Chef Carlos Salgado is someone who brings on all comers to his corn crown, so expect him to level up ala Supersaiyin Goku — but will Fox match him with a Vegeta?

Flour Tortilla Bracket 

Judge: Mona Holmes, reporter for Eater Los Angeles

The results

No. 1 HomeState vs. No. 6 Ancho’s:

I had to sleep on it, but what it came down to was this: Every time I reached into the fridge for a tortilla, I reached for Ancho’s. 

Winner: Ancho’s.

Gustavo’s takeaway: I actually think HomeState is even better this year than last year, when it won the Golden Tortilla. But when I went to get a fresh dozen of Ancho’s flour tortillas for Mona so she could eat her way through the Suave 16, I remember grabbing one small, puffy tortilla from a paper bag while I was stuck in traffic on the 91 headed home. By the time I got home, there was just a half-dozen left. That’s when I realized Ancho’s had a good shot to go far — and, like Alexander Hamilton, they took it.

Judge: Evan Kleiman, Host of KCRW’s Good Food 

The results

No. 1 Sonoratown vs. No. 2 Burritos La Palma:
And the winner is...Burritos La Palma. The beautiful puff with such a thin tortilla seduced me.

Winner: Burritos La Palma

Gustavo’s takeaway: The respective owners of Burritos La Palma and Sonoratown — Alberto Bañuelos and Teo Diaz-Rodriguez, Jr./Jennifer Feltham — are some of the kindest, most genuine people in SoCal’s restaurant industry, an industry historically dominated by tools. That they’re the pioneers of elevating flour tortillas in this region over the past five years is proof that a tortilla goddess exists (there is technically none in Aztec mythology, although Centiocihuatl is a maize deity that Acapulco Tortilleria still puts on its flour tortilla packaging). Matching them for flour tortilla supremacy isn’t fair — but life ain’t fair, and sometimes, friends gotta fight, you know?

Either Burritos La Palma or Sonoratown would’ve been a great Fuerte Four finalist, but I’m happy for La Palma, as they’re now in their third Fuerte Four — second-most after Taco Maria — but have yet to win a championship. Sonoratown, meanwhile, already won its Golden Tortilla — and while I’m sure they would’ve loved to win a second one, I know they’re happy it’s La Palma who beat them and not, say, Guerrero.

Flour Fuerte Four Matchup 

No. 2 Burritos La Palma vs. No. 6 Ancho’s

Gustavo’s Preview: Ancho’s is the first-ever Fuerte Four contestant who’s not from Los Angeles or Orange counties. People in the Inland Empire have raved about their flour tortillas for decades — yet they’ve never had any widespread SoCal love until now...and now Ancho’s has to face off against flour tortilla royalty in Burritos La Palma. Can the 951 show the 714 what’s up? Find out this Sunday!

READ MORE: 

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