Week 2 Recap: Behold your Suave 16!

Written by

Interior mural at Lenchita's in Pacoima, which makes handmade corn tortillas. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

After last week’s rash of upsets, the field mostly played to expectations in week 2 of the #TortillaTournament. But two patterns have emerged among the advancing contestants that all tortilla makers should take to heart: quality of ingredients, and hechas a mano (made by hand). 

In almost every matchup between machine-produced tortillas and handmade ones, the latter won. Simple physics, in a way: a patted-out, fresh tortilla gets more love and texture than one spit out by a metal conveyor.

Is it unfair, then, to place handmade and machine-made tortillas against each other? That’s what a major, Los Angeles-based tortilla manufacturer who shall remain nameless alleged last year on Instagram when their just-okay tortillas didn’t move beyond past the second round.

To them, I say: Up your game by investing in ingredients.

As shown by two contenders (as you’ll see below) in this year’s Suave 16, using heirloom, non-GMO corn or wheat make tortillas taste exponentially better, even if they’re produced by máquinas. Similarly, if you use cruddy Maseca to make handmade tortillas, the results will taste just as bad as Guerrero brand — namely, because they’re owned by Gruma, the Thanos of the tortilla world.

Moral of this masa missive? Put more care into your tortillas, makers.

And now, the results! See it in bracket form here. And don’t forget to RSVP for our grand finale Sept. 8 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street, where the four finalists will offer samples of their tortillas!

CORN TORTILLAS

EVAN KLEIMAN BRACKET

#1 Taco Maria vs. #8 Del Bajio: A rare clash: blue corn versus blue corn. Del Bajio, which machine-produces their tortillas de maíz azul, doesn’t make a bad product, but it was no match for Taco Maria, whose chef-owner Carlos Salgado does everything by hand to create his blue beauties outside of actually growing the corn. Ingredients and process win by a landslide. WINNER: Taco Maria. 

#5 La Tapatia vs. #13 Taqueria Tortilla Factory: A hell of a far match-up: Oxnard versus Cathedral City. Both make them by hand, but La Tapatia’s are thicker and feature more corn oomph. WINNER: La Tapatia

#6 Tortilleria La Talpense vs. #3 Miramar: A tortilla gordita faceoff. Eastside institution Miramar, versus a San Fernando restaurant that makes them by hand, by order. Miramar remains my favorite mass-produced old-school tortilla, but Evan went with La Talpense, and rightfully so: their tortillas are better, but not by much! WINNER: Tortilleria La Talpense

#7 Sabor a Mexico vs. #15 El Campeon: El Campeon is a South Orange County favorite, and their machine-made tortillas are seen in households and markets all around that blessed part of OC. But their white-corn tortillas didn’t stand a chance against their competitors, a Panorama City spot that hands you fresh tortillas wrapped in butcher paper. WINNER: Sabor a Mexico.

NICK LIAO BRACKET

#1 Kernel of Truth vs. #8 Acapulco Mexicatessen: LA Taco editor-in-chief Javier Cabral was right when he tweeted that this faceoff was “the new ‘Classic’ of East Los Angeles” instead of the annual Garfield-Roosevelt high school football game: “Wow. What a matchup for this second round! The competition is STIFF.” Cabral was right: Acapulco is beloved by Mexican Americans for a good product, but is made by machine. So is Kernel, but the youngsters uses organic, non-GMO corn which you can taste immediately. Ingredients win again. WINNER: Kernel of Truth.

#5 Lenchita's vs. #13 Tortilleria Mexico: Lenchita’s, a beloved Pacoima restaurant with a fabulous mural of the namesake founder that’s part of the barrio’s mural scene, is the third San Fernando Valley to advance to the Suave 16. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Don’t sleep in the 818!!! WINNER: Lenchita’s.

The plaque that greets eaters at Carnitas El Rey in Oxnard, which makes a unique type of corn tortilla that's almost as big as a flour one. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW 

#6 Carnitas El Rey vs. #3 La Princesita: And the same goes for Oxnard, which has delicious Mexican food and a long Chicano history that the rest of Southern California always forgets because we don’t dare try to brave the 101 North past the 405 interchange due to the traffic. A damn shame, because El Rey’s larger-than usual tortillas are marvels to behold, and also handmade. They beat out East LA legend, La Princesita. WINNER: Carnitas El Rey.

#10 La Rancherita - Santa Ana vs. #2 Guisados: SanTana’s La Rancherita is a sprawling market/restaurant/tortilleria that makes my brother-in-law’s favorite corn tortillas. They’re good, but Guisados — yep — makes them by hand, the better to get filled with their exquisite guisos (stews). They make it to the Suave 16 for the second year in a row. WINNER: Guisados. 

CORN SUAVE 16 MATCHUPS

#1 Taco Maria vs. #5 La Tapatia

#6 Tortilleria La Talpense vs. #7 Sabor a Mexico

--

#1 Kernel of Truth vs #5 Lenchita's 

#6 Carnitas el Rey vs #2 Guisados

How ruthless is the competition in corn this year? Only three of last year’s Suave 16 maiz finalists made it back to the 3rd round. 

Now, let’s get some flour power, Super Saiyan style!

FLOUR TORTILLAS

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Sonoratown vs. #9 Northgate Estilo Sonora: As you heard on this week’s “Good Food,” Sonoratown is not taking its Golden Tortilla win from last year for granted. Despite weathering long lines this summer in the wake of their appearance on Netflix’s “The Taco Chronicle”, the downtown LA taqueria’s Sonora-style tortillas are even BETTER than last year--lighter, stretchier, more balloon-y. The Northgate Gonzalez chain was smart to up its tortilla game by starting to produce their own Sonora-style tortillas last year, and they’re not bad — but they’re a veritable Vallarta’s compared to Sonoratown. WINNER: Sonoratown.

#12 Arriola's vs. #4 Mexicali Taco: The oldest continuously operated tortillería in Southern California, Arriola’s makes a fine, fluffy flour tortilla, so stop in and buy a pack or 10 next time you go to Coachella. But Mexicali Taco’s tortillas are in the style of the namesake city: wheaty, small, wonderful. The match-up was closer than expected, but the higher seed advances. WINNER: Mexicali Taco.

#6 Sonoritas vs. #3 La Azteca: Another Sonoran-style entry versus a 76-year-old Eastlos standard. Both make their tortillas de harina by hand, but La Azteca, as Connie put it, is just more “yummy and better texture.” WINNER: La Azteca. 

#10 La Fiesta vs. #2 HomeState: Machine-made versus handmade yet again. La Fiesta is a criminally unknown tortillería in Long Beach that none of the city’s media have ever bothered to cover. HomeState, on the other hand, is a SoCal media darling — and rightfully so. Their Tex-Mex-style torts are sabrosas and move on to the Suave 16. WINNER: HomeState

A basket of flour tortillas at Paco's Tacos Cantina in Westchester, complete with a great Cal-Mex style chile relleno. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW 

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs. #8 Paco's Tacos: This was a closer fight that I anticipated. Burritos La Palma’s flavor hasn’t declined in quality, but they were also going up against a place that has patted out flour tortillas for decades — you can’t just dismiss that experience. Paco’s’s tortillas are almost Sonora-style, and absorb the butter pads just beautifully. La Palma needs no butter, because it uses better ingredients that translate into better flavor. La Palma wins, but everyone should pay #respect to Paco’s and enjoy their gargantuan chile rellenos. WINNER: Burritos La Palma

#12 Las Cuatro Milpas vs. #4 Salazar: Biggest upset in the 2nd round. Salazar, the sister restaurant of Mexicali Tacos, still makes some of the best carne asada in Southern California. But they got trampled by San Bernardo’s Las Cuatro Milpas, which has been in operation for over 50 years and sits on what used to be Route 66. Both make them handmade, too, but San Berdoo’s entry, large and chewy and magnificent, is an IE treasure that I never even knew about until recently. THIS is why we #TortillaTournament! WINNER: Las Cuatro Milpas.

#6 Fonda Moderna vs. #3 Jimenez Ranch Market: Fonda just opened a couple of months ago at a new food hall in Orange County, and makes delicious tacos. But Jimenez Ranch Market’s tortillas are minor miracles, so powdery and chewy and puffy these Zacatecas-style tortillas get. Don’t forget: if you want to try these, you have to order and pay for a pack the day before! WINNER: Jimenez Ranch Market.

#7 El Ruso vs. #2 La Monarca:  Here, we come across the tortilla version of the hypothetical contest between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. In other words, could the handmade jewels of the newish El Ruso (which is already one of my favorite carne asada tacos in Southern California) take down the machine-made, buy-by-the-packet treasures of the La Monarca Bakery chain? I like El Ruso’s food better, but this is a #TortillaTournament and La Monarca’s tortillas taste better. The difference? They use flour imported from Sonora, which gives them the slightest of edges. La Monarca wins, but Los Angeles: get thee to El Ruso pronto. WINNER: La Monarca

FLOUR TORTILLA SUAVE 16 MATCHUPS

#1 Sonoratown vs. #4 Mexicali Taco 

#3 La Azteca vs #2 HomeState 

--

#1 Burritos La Palma vs #12 Las Cuatro Milpas 

#3 Jimenez Ranch Market vs #2 La Monarca

The favorites dominated in this bracket. Sonoratown, La Azteca, HomeState, Burritos La Palma, Jimenez Ranch Market and La Monarca return to the Suave 16, showing that their victories last year were no fluke and that Connie and I know our stuff. And good job, Las Cuatro Milpas!

Made it down this far, folks? I’ll say it again: don’t forget RSVP for our grand finale Sept. 8 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street, where the four finalists will offer samples of their tortillas!