Tortilla Tournament, Week 1: Stunning upsets, favorites on the run!

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The tortilla wrappers for nine of the contestants in this year's #TortillaTournament. Read below to see which ones advanced to the next round! Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

KCRW and Gustavo Arellano’s Tortilla Tournament returns! Four finalists will face off live for a virtual celebration of all things tortilla October 18.

The first week of any tortilla tournament usually features a couple of minor upsets, but usually sees the big shots trample their lesser-ranked competition.

Not in this Week 1. 

As you’ll read below, we had one stunning upset, a lot of big upsets, and some near-upsets that would’ve upset Highland Park un chingo. It’s great to see the Tortilla Tournament competition get tougher every year.

And if you’re looking for Southern California’s best tortillas, check out KCRW’s Ultimate Tortilleria Guide

Now, without further ado...

CORN TORTILLAS 

Connie Alvarez Bracket 

#1 Taco Maria vs. #16 La Carreta: She offered no notes on La Carreta because, as Connie put it, “Taco Maria was...ni se diga (aka fuggedaboutit)!” WINNER: Taco Maria.

#8 Tortilleria Playa Azul vs. #9 Tortilleria La Pequeñita: “La Pequeñita needs a pinch of salt -- so bland that if it wasn't for chewing, I wasn't sure I even had anything in my mouth!” WINNER: Tortilleria Playa Azul.

#5 Tallulah's vs. #12 Juanita's Tortilleria: “Juanita's was pretty delish for its humble appearance next to Tallulah's magical blue corn hue. Alas, it wasn't just a color for Tallulah – they brought the flavor too.” WINNER: Tallulah’s.

#4 Guisados vs. #13 Nuño Bros.: The Guisados chain is a two-time Suave 16 contestant based on the strength of their small, made-to-order corn tortillas, but…”UPSET ALERT: I don't know who the Nuño Bros are, but they won out with the full corn flavor where I was expecting to easily pick Guisados. Guisados won on texture, but I couldn't stop imagining meat or cheese in it, so the bros clinched it with stand-alone flavor.” WINNER: Nuño Bros. 

#6 Mitla Café vs. #11 San Gabriel Market: “ALMOST TIED: Mitla Cafe and San Gabriel Market were so similar in flavor that Mitla's texture was the tie-breaker.” WINNER: Mitla Café. 

#3 La Tapatia #5 vs.. #14 Tortilleria Flor de Mayo: “Flor de Mayo was the winner here, but more interestingly, this was the round where I found out there are very pronounced burn rates on tortillas that I hadn't noticed before. What does that mean as far as ingredients? Food scientists with tortilla specialization, hit me up.” Gustavo note: Connie has the BEST asides! WINNER: Flor de Mayo. 

#7 El Toro Bravo vs.. #10 Taqueria Ventura Doña Raquel: “Doña Raquel knows what's up with her classic taqueria-style tortillas – I could almost taste the asada!” WINNER: Taqueria Ventura Doña Raquel. 

#2 Carnitas El Rey vs. #15 La Chapalita: “Carnitas El Rey's were interesting in texture and size for a corn tortilla – also, did I detect some flour in there?” Maybe. The Oxnard carnitas master makes some of the biggest corn tortillas you’ll find, the better to stuff in chopped-up pork. But they ain’t revealing flavors! WINNER: Carnitas El Rey.

WEEK 2 CONNIE BRACKET MATCHUPS

#1 Taco Maria vs. #8 Tortilleria Playa Azul

#5 Tallulah’s vs. #13 Nuño Bros.

#6 Mitla Café vs.. #14 Tortilleria Flor de Mayo

#7 Taqueria Ventura Doña Raquel vs. #2 Carnitas El Rey 

Handmade corn supremacy reigns again, with only Nuño Bros. and Flor de Mayo offering packed tortillas.

Gustavo Arellano Bracket

#1 Kernel of Truth vs. #16 Big Saver Foods: On Instagram, I posted a photo of the two contestants. Kernel’s entry was so yellow gracias to organic corn, it almost had the tone of sandalwood. Big Saver’s tortilla looked like a wet Styrofoam coaster. WINNER: Kernel of Truth. 

#8 La Jolla Tortilleria vs.. #9 Acapico: The latter is based out of Fallbrook but sells great hot sauces and blue tortillas at multiple Orange County farmer’s markets. They were good, but they didn’t have the firm chewiness and deep flavor of La Jolla, owned by a Salvadoran family that has made Mexican-style corn and flour tortillas (but not Salvadoran tortillas, alas) for over 20 years. WINNER: La Jolla. 

#5 Tehachapi Grain Project vs.. #12 El Fortin: Tehachapi’s machine-made tortillas suffer nothing in quality, because they use heirloom Nothstine dent corn and use Kernel of Truth’s facilities to make their tortillas. The result is almost a Kernel of Truth clone, so it easily beats El Fortin’s larger-than-average corn tortillas — a good representative of Oaxacan-style tortillas, but just not as flavorful as Tehachapi. WINNER: Tehachapi. 

#4 Sabor a Mexico vs. #13 La Sopresa Tortilleria: Earlier this year, I was in Coachella to do an LA Times story about the city’s new Latino Democratic ruling class and picked up a pack of corn tortillas from La Sopresa. They were okay fresh, and remained okay upon me defrosting them months later. Sabor a Mexico, on the other hand, remained as thick and gorgeous as they were during their surprising run last year. WINNER: Sabor a Mexico. 

#6 El Ruso vs. #11 Ramirez Tortilleria: El Ruso is rightfully acclaimed across the Southland for their Sonoran-style flour tortillas, but their secret weapon is spectacular handmade corn ones, which they just introduced this year. It trounced Ramirez, a Baldwin Park market that, while makes a good version, didn’t stand a chance. WINNER: El Ruso.

#3 Lenchita's vs.. 14 Tortilleria Acapulco: The Pacoima classic easily beat this SanTana tortilleria that also houses a good restaurant — but their tortillas are TOTAL weak salsa. WINNER: Lenchita’s 

#7 La Favorita vs. #10 El Zocalo: At a dollar for a dozen, this might be one of the best handmade corn tortilla deals in East L.A. — and they’re good AND the mercadito has an awesome mural outside. El Zocalo’s corn tortillas had no flavor other than moist chalkiness. WINNER: La Favorita.

#2 La Talpense vs. #15 Joselito: The only thing going for Joselito — the official store brand for the OC-based R Ranch Market chain — is its cool packaging art of a boy mariachi singer. But the tortillas? Blech. La Talpense, meanwhile? Corn perfection for me: thick, almost meaty, and redolent of a milpa. WINNER: La Talpense 

WEEK 2 GUSTAVO BRACKET MATCHUPS 

#1 Kernel of Truth vs. #8 La Jolla

#5 Tehachapi Grain Project vs. #4 Sabor a Mexico

#6 El Ruso vs. #3 Lenchita’s

#7 La Favorita vs. #2 La Talpense

Restaurants beat all the market entries, and only one tortilleria remains. Handmade continue to rules!

FLOUR  TORTILLAS

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

#1 HomeState vs. #16 La Carreta: Evan writes: “HomeState squeaked by La Carreta — really, it's almost a draw. And for the value, La Carreta, but points down because I have no idea of the ingredients for La Carreta.” Man, if the Orange market would’ve won against the Tex-Mex mini-chain, it would’ve been an upset on par with the 2018 NCAA men's basketball shocker between #16 University of Maryland, Baltimore County and top seed University of Virginia. See, tortilleros everywhere? There is ALWAYS hope. WINNER: HomeState

#8 El Ciclón vs. #9 Casablanca: “Casablanca was the clear winner here despite being thicker than I prefer. El Cicíon was too chewy in that starchy-gel way and too much salt.” WINNER: Casablanca.

#5 Tallulah's vs. #12 Nuño Bros.: Tallulah's was easy win because Nuño Bros. added sugar to the tortilla. Very disconcerting. Also, T’s is just delicious. An all-rounder with great flavor/texture. Might be my dinner tortilla companion tonight.” WINNER: Tallulah’s.

#4 La Azteca vs. #13 Mr. Tortilla: “Although Mr. Tortilla was good for a packaged tortilla, La Azteca (raw) was gossamer thin with fine flavor.” WINNER: La Azteca. 

#6 El Ruso vs. #11 San Gabriel Market: “Biggest upset. Everything about the sobaquera tortilla [the hubcap-big specialty of Sonora that El Ruso only makes Fridays and Saturdays] is better except the flavor. Absolutely bland and a whiff of rancid fat.  But I feel I need Connie to confirm. Perhaps I've had a stroke I'm unaware of.” 

#3 Jimenez Ranch Market vs. #14 Cabo Chips: “Cabo Chips is really good for a raw packaged tortilla. I would buy this to keep in the fridge for long-term storage.  Good until October! And yet made with only 3 ingredients: flour, coconut oil and salt but compared to Jimenez is more stodgy/chewy (which I think is the combo of the press and coconut oil) and saltier. WINNER: Jimenez Ranch Market.

#7 Mitla Café vs. #10 Juanita's Tortilleria: “Juanita's beat out Mitla Café on aroma alone.  Super lardy? Don't know, but despite similar textures, way more flavor.” WINNER: Juanita’s.

#2 La Monarca vs. #15 La Chapalita: “La Chapalita had great flavor and texture. Sturdy and delicate at same time versus La Monarca, which was like a cracker with a peeled off face out of the package — a disappointment.” WINNER: La Chapalita.

WEEK 2 EVAN MATCHUPS

#1 HomeState vs. #8 Casablanca

#5 Tallulah’s vs. #4 La Azteca

#11 San Gabriel Market vs. #3 Jimenez Ranch Market

#10 Juanita’s Tortilleria vs. #15 La Chapalita 

A massive upset with La Monarca losing, but gotta admit: Their flour tortillas have taken a hit over the last years, for reasons known only to them. 

MONA HOLMES BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #16 Big Saver Foods: On two-time Fuerte Four finalist La Palma: “It’s a solid tortilla, this could be the perfectly good base for other dishes. It needed more salt though, and the consistency had no tooth, but not sure if that was because it was frozen?” On bargain Big Saver: “Am kinda shocked at how consistently good each bite was. Had good flavor, and a bit of good fat. I loved it.” WINNER: Burritos La Palma.

#8 El Cholo vs. #9 La Jolla Tortilleria: On El Cholo: “This had a shortbread-like consistency, salty (in a good way), you can smell the fat and I just kept eating it, I loved the structure. Very unique.” On La Jolla: Wonderful tortilla. Tasted like lime was a secondary but prominent ingredient. Consistency was great, would be fabulous with fish tacos.” WINNER: El Cholo. 

#5 Tehachapi Grain Project vs. #12 El Gallito Market: On Tehachapi: “Melts in mouth, light, good finish, pleasant flour taste, whole grainy, and I can see it working well with other bolder flavors. I think this would be amazing with vegan ingredients like jackfruit.” On El Gallito: “Tastes processed.” WINNER: Tehachapi.

#4 Mexicali Taco vs. #13 Sol.  On Mexicali: “Smooth, good standard tortilla. Very mellow, I can see it being served at a smooth jazz music festival.” On Sol: No notes, but her WINNER: Sol, in a big upset!

#6 Ama Cita vs. #11 La Fe: On the Tex-Mex Ama Cita: “Buttery, so delicious, great flavor and holds together well. This is the tortilla you always want.” On the Santa Marcos-based, Mother’s Market-available La Fe: “Nice flake, good chew/bite. It's fine, but left me wanting more.”

#3 La Cuatro Milpas vs. #14 Gonzalez: On the San Bernardino-based Cuatro Milpas: “Dry, brittle, salty, thin, burned really fast when heating over the stove flame, and made me feel sad.” On Gonzalez: “a nice balance so the flour was not overwhelming, basic structure, ok flake when pulling apart.” WINNER: Gonzalez, in another upset. 

#7 Ancho's Southwest Grill vs. #10 Café Rio: On the Riverside-based Anchos: “Just lovely. Salty, thick, flakes well, and is almost like a pita. I just have not tasted a tortilla like this. So pleasing and can eat four in a row with nothing on it.” On the Utah-based Cafe Rio chain: “Seasoned well, just enough salt. Good flavor and consistency. “ WINNER: Ancho’s.

#2 Sonoratown vs. 15 Ezekiel 4:9: On 2018 Golden Tortilla winner Sonoratown: “Translucent and doesn't burn easily when applying heat on the stovetop burner, deliciously fatty. Felt and tasted buttery, good seasoning (salt), slight flake, balanced, very pleasing. On Corona-based Ezekiel, whose entry is made from sprouted grain: “No. Just NO.” WINNER: Sonoratown. 

WEEK 2 MONA HOLMES BRACKET MATCHUPS

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #8 El Cholo

#5 Tehachapi Grain Project vs. #13 Sol

#6 Ama Cita vs.. #14 Gonzalez

#7 Ancho’s Southwest Grill vs. #2 Sonoratown

Lot of tortilla diversity here — the Tex-Mex Ama Cita and Ancho’s, Sonora-style Sonoratown, jerezano La Palma and El Cholo, who has been making handmade flour tortillas longer than any other establishment in Southern California #respect

See y’all next week for Week 2’s results!

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