Tortilla Tournament, Week Three: And then there were ocho

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

When I seed KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament each year, part of me wants to see everything go in order — in other words, the No. 1 seed beats the No. 16 seed and goes all the way to the final to match up against other No. 1 seeds, the No. 2 seeds eventually lose to the No. 1 seeds, and so on. It shows that my fellow judges and I know our tortillas, and can accurately predict their success against other tortillas (one day, we’ll do a fantasy tortilla league, I promise).

In that sense, I’ve been on point this year. Three of our top four seeds in this Tournament of Champions made it into the Suave 16 and have continued onto the Eso Eight. But I also love when upsets happen — it’s proof that sometimes, humble tortillas can rise to the fight and knock down tortilla giants. It happens every year — but I didn’t expect the ultimate underdog to be.... Trader Joe’s?! Read on for our Week Three results.

Corn Tortilla Bracket 

Judge: Gustavo Arellano, LA Times columnist and KCRW contributor

The results

No. 1 Taco Maria vs. No. 4 Mitla Café:
Last year, the two prides of their barrios — Costa Mexico, and Westside San Bernardino, respectively — faced off in the Eso Eight in my corn comadre Connie Alvarez’s bracket, and Taco Maria won handily. It’s a testament to how great each tortilla is that they’re meeting up late in the tournament again. And as much as I would’ve loved Mitla’s kinda-thick, totally delicious handmade corn tortillas to advance, Taco Maria is just unstoppable. Carlos Salgado ups his game every year, and his blue corn tortillas this time around can fill you up with just one bite and no other garnish, filling, or accoutrement needed — that’s how incredible they are.

Winner: Taco Maria

No. 3 Carnitas El Rey vs. No. 15 Trader Joe’s:
Everyone in Southern California should go to Carnitas El Rey in Oxnard. They make carnitas so perfectly juicy yet not greasy that even I like them — and I don’t like carnitas. But I’ll have to profile them next year, because their Tortilla Tournament ends for the third year in a row in the Suave 16. And they got taken down by...Trader Joe’s?! Yep, the supermarket giant is an unassuming Goliath this year, having toppled the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds with corn tortillas so spectacular you’ll never mock their Mexican offerings again. 

Winner: Trader Joe’s

Gustavo’s Week Four Matchups

  • No. 1 Taco Maria vs. No. 15 Trader Joe’s

Gustavo’s takeaway: Taco Maria has made it into every Fuerte Four so far — the only contestant to do so. Standing in its way of a fourth straight trip is, yes, Trader Joe’s. If they can pull off the upset, they’ll have beaten the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 seeds, which has never happened in any professional sports tournament I can think of. I’m telling you, folks, the Masa Madness is real.


Two of this week’s corn  Eso Eight contenders. Photos by Gustavo Arellano.

Judge: Connie Alvarez, KCRW Communications Director

The results

No. 9 Tallula’s vs. No. 12 Amapola Deli & Market:

Amapola put up a good fight. This was almost a tie, but Tallula's tortilla is more pleasantly supple and has a robust corn flavor.  

Winner: Tallula’s

No. 3 La Princesita vs. No. 15 La Rancherita:
For this fresh tasting round, I didn't detect the butter that had delighted me when I first tried La Rancherita. The edge went to...

Winner: La Princesita

Connie’s Week Four Matchups

  • No. 9 Tallula’s vs. No. 3 La Princesita 

Gustavo’s takeaway: Santa Monica versus East Los. Jeremy Fox versus the Ramirez familia. Blue corn versus yellow corn. Handmade versus machine-made. Frou-frou versus working class. Newish versus historic. The dichotomy is real here.


Masa is prepped at Ancho’s Southwest Grill in Riverside. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW.

Flour Tortilla Bracket 

Judge: Mona Holmes, reporter for Eater Los Angeles

The results

No. 1 HomeState vs. No. 5 Salazar 

It came down to smell and texture. The flavors are outstanding for both, but HomeState has a feel to it that can withstand any use, from heating up over the stovetop to quesadilla, taco, or just plain out of the fridge. It's Homestate, again.

Winner: HomeState

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

No. 6 Ancho’s vs. No. 7 El Ruso 

I've spent an hour back-and-forth with this tasting, and both of these makers are powerhouses. They're both delicious. They both are tortillas I'd love to make anything with. But Ancho's is so divine with its puffiness, texture, and slight nuttiness. It's Ancho's for me. 

Winner: Ancho’s.

Mona’s Week Three Matchups

  • No. 1 HomeState vs. No. 6 Ancho’s 

Gustavo’s takeaway: Too many people still try to dismiss bad Mexican food as “Tex-Mex.” Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Next time you hear such nonsense, send them to these two places, which make tiny, puffy flour tortillas that are the epitome of flour power and represent Texas well. HomeState is the defending champ, and now follows Taco Maria as the only tortilla ever to make it to four straight Eso Eights — but standing in its way to defend its title is a Riverside El Torito clone with a hell of a tortilla secret. Moral of the story? Never judge a tortilla by its menu.


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

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

The results

No. 1 Sonoratown vs. No. 5 Bar Amá
This is a mean, horrible match-up.  Sonoratown's justly famed tortilla and winner of this contest in the past is thin, flaky, has great flavor with a bit of pre-home reheat char (if also a bit too salty for me to eat everyday). The Bar Amá tortilla is a homely little round of locally milled flour with fantastic flavor, but the texture is a bit dry and sludgy. 

Winner: Sonoratown

No. 11 Graciana's vs. No. 2 Burritos La Palma:
Graciana's are really good tortillas. Thin, super flaky, good flavor, and just enough salt. If I were to stop there, they would win over Burritos La Palma, which are also thin, flaky, and have a good flavor, if not a tiny bit too much salt for me. But Graciana's uses palm oil to make their tortillas get their puff on, while Burritos La Palma uses lard. If I have to choose how to die, I'd rather go lard any day.

Winner: Burritos La Palma

Evan’s Week Three Matchups

  • No. 1 Sonoratown vs. No. 2 Burritos La Palma

Gustavo’s takeaway: This is the only bracket where the top two seeds are meeting at the end — and what a matchup! Sonoratown beat Burritos La Palma in the inaugural #TortillaTournament back in 2018 on its way to claiming the Golden Tortilla. Neither of them even made the Suave 16 last year, and are thus thirsting to reclaim their harina honor — but only one can win. Who’ll it be?

READ MORE: 

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Behold! KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament of Champions