Tortilla Tournament 2021, Week One: The old-school dominates

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Tortillas prepped at Tortillería Playa Azul were among this week’s Tortilla Tournament victors. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW.

This rundown is the loooong one, when 64 tortillas slash down to 32, where the mighty slay the meek — at least that’s how it’s supposed to go.

But as four years of Tortilla Tournament have shown, it’s never that easy. Not even close.

Which brings us to the results of Week One, complete with each judge’s personal guiding philosophy. Enjoy, and if you’re mad about the results, just wait till next week!

Catch up on the rules and methodology of this year’s tourney here

Read more: KCRW and Gustavo’s Great #TortillaTournament

CORN BRACKET

 

Judge: Gustavo Arellano, LA Times columnist and KCRW contributor

Philosophy: For corn tortillas, it's all about the flavor. They can't have a bitter aftertaste, because that means the maker added preservatives or cut beautiful masa with vile Maseca (dehydrated corn flour made by Gruma, the Thanos of the tortilla world). A great corn tortilla must taste of, well, corn: a slight funkiness, a glorious comfort redolent of your mami's comal. I prefer them thick (gorditas — little fatties), but you'd be surprised at what thinness can bring to the game.

The results 

No. 1 Taco Maria vs. No. 16 Tortilleria Mexico 

Tortilleria Mexico is from a place that makes the same tortilla under different labels. Taco Maria is the Michelin-starred restaurant that’s the only contestant to ever make the final every year. This contest was as lopsided as Tito Ortiz facing off against Anderson Silva in the boxing ring this past weekend. Come to think of it, Ortiz was laid out as flat as a tortilla… 

Winner: Taco Maria

No. 8 Taqueria Tortilla Factory vs. No. 9 La Tolteca 

This matchup easily wins the trophy for longest distance competitors. La Tolteca has operated since 1946 from Santa Barbara; Taquería Tortilla Factory operates from a strip mall in Cathedral City. That’s 210 miles between them, Jack, but someone had to do it — in this case, me. Taqueria Tortilla Factory’s product ain’t bad considering they use preservatives, but La Tolteca doesn’t — and its earthy flavor gives it the win. 

Winner: La Tolteca 

No. 5 Nuño Brothers vs. No. 12 La Jolla 

La Jolla’s texture wasn’t bad, but the tortilla had no immediate flavor and a bitter aftertaste. Nuño Brothers from SanTanaTa was soft — almost too soft — but when you only use corn, water, and lime, you’ll beat anything with additives. 

Winner: Nuño Brothers

No. 4 Mitla Café vs. No. 13 El Campeón 

South Orange County so loves its El Campeón in San Juan Capistrano, and its meats are good — but their tortillas are meh, especially when compared to Mitla Café, the pride of San Bernardino for 84 years. I just had some again last weekend, when I stopped in for a huevos rancheros breakfast — and their soft, pillowy, crunchy, taste was as delicious right out of the kitchen as it was right out of the freezer at home for me during judging. 

Winner: Mitla Café

Read more: ¡Ask a Tortilla Tournament Judge!: What’s the best way to heat a tortilla?

No. 6 Acapulco Tortillería vs. No. 11 Del Bajio 

Interesting how tortilla distribution works: I found Del Bajio’s blue-corn tortillas in Oxnard and Acapulco’s corn tortillas in SanTana, even though both are located in East LA. Del Bajio does a good product, but Acapulco has been around since the 1940s, so they know a thing or dos about masa. 

Winner: Acapulco

No. 3 Carnitas El Rey vs. No. 14 Tortilleria Flor de Mayo 

Another epically far match-up: Oxnard versus Fontana. These two tortillas should team up to dispel the similar stereotypes the rest of Southern California throws at their respective cities. While I love the simple rose image that serves as Flor de Mayo’s package art, the tortillas themselves don’t compare with El Rey’s corn tortillas, which are by far the largest corn tortilla in this tournament — as big as your face! 

Winner: Carnitas El Rey 

No. 7 Tortillería Playa Azul vs No. 10 La Favorita 

These two are the epitome of LA neighborhood tortillerias. The former serves the Florence area from a corner liquor store, while the latter is at the base of City Terrace and has great murals (including a humorous depiction of a conquistador assuming the role of a Catalan caganer [Google it, but think the climatic prank of “The White Lotus” haha]). Both are good and yummy, but Playa Azul ekes out the victory here. 

Winner: Tortillería Playa Azul

No. 2 La Talpense vs. No. 15 Trader Joe's 

UPSET ALERT. La Talpense has made it into two previous Suave 16s for its great, thick tortillas, but its flavor wasn’t as strong as in years past. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, is a marvel. I remember having their corn tortillas in the past and tolerating what I tasted — but they’ve upped their game dramatically since then. It had the intense corn flavor of a gordita-style tortilla, but thin. Watch out, world: Trader Joe’s, or whoever they contracted to make it for them, has mastered the corn tortilla game. 

Winner: Trader Joe’s 

Gustavo’s Week Two Matchups 

-No. 1 Taco Maria vs. No. 9 La Tolteca

-No. 5 Nuño Brothers vs. No. 4 Mitla Cafe

-No. 6 Acapulco Tortilleria vs. No. 3 Carnitas El Rey

-No. 7 Tortilleria Playa Azul vs. No. 15 Trader Joe’s

Gustavo’s takeaway: Between La Tolteca, Acapulco, and Mitla Café, that’s 235 collective years of making tortillas for Southern California. Damn.


Can Trader Joe’s stand up to the corn masa might of Tortillería Playa Azul? Follow along next week to find out. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW.

Judge: Connie Alvarez, KCRW Communications Director

Philosophy: In a corn tortilla, I'm looking for flavor and pliability. Does it complement my food with corny goodness, or help defuse a spicy bomb of a meal to acceptable levels? And can I tear it, roll it, and do the ol' pinch-and-scoop with it? That's a key criterion because when a tortilla is present, I forego utensils –– I'm just an animal, baybee!

The results

No. 1 Kernel of Truth vs. No. 16 La Venadita

No comparison. Kernel’s tortilla is so deliciously earthy, I could use it as potting soil! 

Winner: Kernel of Truth

No. 8 La Mazorca vs. No. 9 Tallula's:
There's a unique flavor to Tallula’s that I can't pinpoint, except to say it's very good. 

Winner: Tallula’s

No. 5 Lenchita's vs. No. 12 Amapola Deli & Market

For this one, it's the first time I pick form and function over flavor. Both are good, but Lenchita's is practically a thick tostada... which is not practical for all meals. 

Winner: Amapola 

No. 4 Miramar Tortilleria vs. No. 13 Rubén’s Tortilleria

This was more of a mood pick — light, small, quick, and snacky. While both are tasty, on this muggy day, Miramar's heft felt like a bowl of hot, heavy soup. 

Winner: Rubén’s

No. 6 La Corona vs. No. 11 La Gloria

For two very different tortillas – one very thin, one very thick – this one was a tough call. Flavor-wise, they went toe-to-toe in the boxing ring of my mouth. But, in the final chewing round, I distinctly tasted popcorn in La Gloria...ding ding! Popcorn always wins. 

Winner: La Gloria

No. 3 La Princesita vs. No. 14 La California

La Princesita brings more flavor, hands down. 

Winner: La Princesita.

No. 7 La Fiesta vs. No. 10 Los Cinco Puntos

I always want to say something nice about the winner, but this one won because its opponent was surprisingly flavorless despite a mouthful of masa. If you're going to rep with that much masa, you better come correct. 

Winner: La Fiesta

No. 2 Guisados vs. No. 15 La Rancherita

La Rancherita is one I could adopt as my new go-to. Pleasant texture, and... do I detect a buttery flavor? Yum. As for Guisados, this time around, I found it too thick not to have more seasoning (psst, salt!). 

Winner: La Rancherita

Connie’s Week Two Matchups

-No. 1 Kernel of Truth vs. No. 9 Tallula’s

-No. 12 Amapola Deli & Market vs. No. 13 Rubén’s Tortilleria

-No. 11 La Gloria vs. No. 3 La Princesita

-No. 7 La Fiesta vs. No. 15 La Rancherita

Gustavo’s takeaway: Both Evan Kleiman and I prefer our corn tortillas to be gorditas — thick. Connie obviously doesn’t — look at all the upsets! Meanwhile, between Amapola, La Gloria, and La Princesita, that’s 170-plus years of corn tortilla glory — damn!


Behold the flour power of El Ruso. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW.

FLOUR TORTILLA BRACKET

 

Judge: Mona Holmes, reporter for Eater Los Angeles

Philosophy: The first thing I notice about a tortilla is the smell. If there's one whiff of a factory's mass-manufacturing odor, I'm already moving onto the next brand. The best ones are balanced with the right amount of salt, are slightly nutty, flaky, and have a good bite. The best tortillas can be heated up on a stovetop flame, flipped by hand, and be able to stand on their own.

The results

No. 1 HomeState vs. No. 16 Sol Gonzalez

HomeState is just a great tortilla. I don't remember it puffing up nearly as much when reheated, which I loved. The structure, consistency, seasoning, and deliciousness are what makes it a fantastic tortilla. Sol Gonzales — Meh. Was truly unhappy tasting this tortilla. 

Winner: HomeState

Read more: The secret behind HomeState’s continued success: Its tortilla queens 

No. 8 Casablanca vs. No. 9 Loqui

A challenge to find a winner with these two! Casablanca is flaky, well-seasoned, and great to taste on its own or with salsas. I liked the thin texture, which will pair well with whatever I need. As for Loqui, the smell was perfect on this tortilla. It’s full of delicious lard, has a good bite, and seems like it will hold up to anything. But while it had all the makings of a great tortilla, I wasn't wowed by it. 

Winner: Casablanca 

No. 5 Salazar vs. No. 12 Diana's

Diana's sturdy tortillas were no match for Salazar's toasty ones. While Diana's had a good finish, I found it lacking in seasoning. Salazar's, on the other hand, were firm, slightly nutty, somewhat flaky, made great quesadillas, and easily won this round. 

Winner: Salazar

No. 4 Mexicali Taco vs. No. 13 La Fortaleza

Mexicali’s tortillas felt mass produced, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But what didn't work was the lack of seasoning and dryness. La Fortaleza’s tortillas are fine, seasoned well, but didn't knock my socks off either. La Fortaleza is the clear winner, but not by a lot. 

Winner: La Fortaleza 

No. 6 Ancho's vs. No. 11 Juanita's

Truly a challenging matchup! Ancho's barely squeaked by for the win. Juanita's has a thin roll, but it's classic and flaky with good flavor. I liked its slight crunch and cooked a quesadilla in it. But Ancho's, wow. It is buttery, fluffy, and crisps up nicely if heated up. It also doesn't overpower anything, and is fragrant in a small pocket. 

Winner: Ancho’s

No. 3 La Azteca vs. No. 14 San Gabriel Market: 

San Gabriel's consistency won me over. Straight out of the fridge or heated on a stovetop, it works. The flavors and creaminess are excellent, propelling it way past La Azteca, which is translucent, flavorless, and overwhelmingly lardy. 

Winner: San Gabriel Market 

No. 7 El Ruso vs. No. 10 Sonoritas

Another one where the flavors were incredible and hard to determine a winner. I ate both cold, heated up, dunked in guacamole, and smothered with butter. Both were incredible. El Ruso has a nutty finish, a good bite, is nice and thick, and has a great consistency. Sonoritas also has such a nice consistency, good bite, and is a little thinner than El Ruso, but that's not a bad thing. The flavor is great. But the winner is El Ruso by a hair. 

Winner: El Ruso 

No. 2 Jimenez Ranch Market vs. No. 15 Northgate

These two tasted very similar to both my chef cousin and me. But that's not a compliment. Jimenez was pasty, heavy, and very dry. Northgate, meanwhile, lacked seasoning and was also very dry. I was surprised by this, since I've had Jimenez tortillas before, but this batch was severely lacking. I hoped to eliminate both from the competition, but after much deliberation (drum roll), the winner is Jimenez. 

Winner: Jimenez Ranch Market

Mona’s Week Two Matchups

-No. 1 HomeState vs. No. 8 Casablanca

-No. 5 Salazar vs. No. 13 La Fortaleza

-No. 6 Ancho’s vs. No. 14 San Gabriel Market

-No. 7 El Ruso vs. No. 2 Jimenez Ranch Market

Gustavo’s takeaway: The dominance of hand-made prevails here — only San Gabriel Market and La Fortaleza mass-produce their tortillas de harina (Ancho’s uses a small machine that’s in the middle of their dining room, so that doesn’t really count). But I betcha Mona’s going to get the most grief from folks for her first round elimination of La Azteca and Diana’s — their fans are fierce.


Making tortilla magic at Bar Ama. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW.

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

Philosophy: When it comes to flour tortillas, I want them to have a good, balanced flavor, neither bland nor too salty. They shouldn’t taste rancid or sour. If there is a pleasing nutty sweetness from the flour, all the better. I like a good puff with a flaky texture with no pastiness when you chew, and they should be pliable and strong enough to fill and roll without being tough.

The results

No. 1 Sonoratown vs. No. 16 Fonda Moderna

Sonoratown is excellence in lard and flour form. This time around, it has it all: the puff, the flavor, the pliable texture. Fonda Moderna also makes a really good tortilla. Excellent puff, and good flavor without being too bold.  An excellent utility player. 

Winner: Sonoratown

No. 8 La Chapalita vs. No. 9 Paco’s Tacos

La Chapalita has a beautiful texture and good puff, but I found myself wondering why they are so yellow. Margarine? That thought kept influencing how I perceived the flavor. I went on the website to look at product ingredients, but no luck. I don't recall them being as yellow last year, and I remember liking them a lot more. Meanwhile, I’ve eaten so many Paco’s tortillas in my life that I tried really hard to step back and taste them as a stranger would. They were the lardiest of the batch I tried, and so super tender. Could use a bit more salt, but overall a great homemade lard tortilla. 

Winner: Paco’s Tacos

No. 5 Bar Ama vs. No. 12 Arriola's

Bar Ama’s tortillas looked really sad when cold from the refrigerator, but once heated were delish. It seems like they’re made from a local wheat, perhaps Sonora? Good salt balance. Small. Hand rolled. No machine involved. Arriola’s were dry, with no puff. 

Winner: Bar Ama 

No. 4 El Cholo vs. No. 13 Romero’s: 

If a tortilla were a scone, that would be El Cholo. Thick, heavy, no puff, and slightly sandy. Decent flavor. Can’t imagine eating it with a meal, but good on its own as the meal. Romero’s feels and looks like a Mission tortilla. Thick and heavy. Bready inside. Good for a hike, and, unlike Mission, good flavor. 

Winner: El Cholo

Read more: Photos: How LA’s tortilla masters make magic with a handful of masa

No. 6 Tallula’s vs. No. 11 Graciana's Tortilla Factory

Last year, Tallula’s made its flour tortillas by hand. This year, right before I matched them up with Graciana’s, I found out they buy them from Masienda. Smart choice, but no longer their tortillas, so Graciana’s advances by forfeit. 

Winner: Graciana’s

No. 3 La Monarca vs. No. 14 Acapulco Tortilleria

La Monarca is so much better than last year — but strangely dry to hold, mealy in the mouth, and bland. Acapulco has a good puff and is delicate in the mouth. Would be great for tucking food in for the fold. 

Winner: Acapulco

No. 7 La Cuatro Milpas vs. No. 10 Carrillo’s

Cuatro Milpas was too salty and dry. Carillo’s had a nice flakiness, hint of salt, good flavor, and thickish consistency. 

Winner: Carrillo’s

No. 2 Burritos La Palma vs. No. 15 Northgate Estilo Sonora

The former had a pretty perfect flavor balance. Thin but strong. Got moldy really fast, but maybe that was my fault (condensation in Ziploc bag, after all). But Northgate Sonora: I would be thrilled to be able to go into a grocery store and get a tortilla of this quality. Not too thin or thick. Good flavor without being too salty. Nice flake. So, by a hair, it’s La Palma. 

Winner: Burritos La Palma.

Evan’s Week 2 Matchups

 -No. 1 Sonoratown vs. No. 9 Paco's Tacos

-No. 5 Bar Ama vs. No. 4 El Cholo

-No. 11 Graciana's  vs. No 14 Acapulco Tortilleria 

-No. 10 Carrillo’s vs. No. 2 Burritos La Palma

Gustavo’s takeaway: In El Cholo, Graciana’s, Acapulco, Paco’s Tacos, and Carrillo’s, you have an incredible 370-plus years of flour tortilla experience—DAMN! How far can the viejitos bracket go?

READ MORE: 

¡Ask a Tortilla Tournament Judge!: What’s the best way to heat a tortilla?
The secret behind HomeState’s continued success: Its tortilla queens
Behold! KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament of Champions