Week 3 recap: Onward to the ¡Eso Eight!

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Reppin' the San Fernando Valley with thick, gordita-style yellow corn tortillas. Not a bad marquee, either. Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

With the 16 finalists, we switched up how to eat our tortillas.

For the first two rounds, everyone ate them from packets I bought on two epic tortilla runs that I then froze, because no way can anyone eat 16 different tortillas in one day, you know? But for the Suave 16, I wanted everyone to taste the contestants as fresh as possible.

So I did another epic tortilla run. I started in Oxnard to get the two entrants from there, swung through the San Fernando Valley, swooped down to East L.A., Orange County, then ended at KCRW with all the goods for the judges (Evan Kleiman and Nick Liao for corn, myself and Connie Alvarez for flour).

We each got five to take home; all the leftovers stayed at KCRW, so everyone could fight over them.

Leftover tortillas for the rest of KCRW. The flour ones went first! Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating a thawed-out tortilla — I’m actually surprised most people don’t know that freezing them is possible. But nothing beats eating a tortilla made on the day you buy it. And I was lucky enough to eat many of the tortillas right off the comal — YUM.

So I can say our Suave 16 are the best tortillas in Southern California right now — and that the ¡Eso Eight! (“Eso” means “right on!” in Mexican Spanish) are even better.

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. #5 La Tapatia: From Evan: “Taco Maria's tortilla made from a non-GMO heirloom blue cónico variety is as similar to the other tortillas in the bracket as flour tortillas are to corn. So not at all. Flavorwise, it's slightly sweeter than the yellow corn but it's the tenderness of the bite that is it's defining characteristic. You want to keep eating to connect to the deep tradition and heritage it comes from.” WINNER: Taco Maria

#6 Tortilleria La Talpense vs. #7 Sabor a Mexico: More Evan: “La Talpense was my favorite yellow corn tortilla. It's gordita style, yet remains supple without the clunkiness that thick tortillas can have. There is deep corn flavor and wonderful texture. Not powdery, dry or overly gritty it has that pleasing slight gel bounce as you rip and bite into it.” WINNER: Tortilleria La Talpense

NICK LIAO BRACKET

#1 Kernel of Truth vs. #5 Lenchita's: From Nick: “Old school versus new school. Styles make fights, and Lenchita’s in Pacoima boasts one of my favorites: the slightly thick, gordita style. Nevertheless, I found Kernel of Truth’s tortilla to have a more addictive corn flavor, with a superior bite.” WINNER: Kernel of Truth 

#6 Carnitas El Rey vs #2 Guisados: More Nick: “Carnitas El Rey took me by surprise in the earlier rounds. Texture wise, I loved that they managed to be sturdy and yielding at the same time, which puts it up there with Guisados. The difference was Guisados had an earthy, wholesomeness that made it hard to stop eating. Again, flavor wins the day.” WINNER: Guisados

CORN ¡ESO EIGHT! MATCHUPS

#1 Taco Maria vs. #6 Tortilleria La Talpense

#1 Kernel of Truth vs. #2 Guisados

An old-school spot up against a Michelin-starred restaurant is a closer matchup than it seems. Meanwhile, Boyle Heights is gonna get DOWN as Kernel takes on Guisados for the right to represent the REAL Eastside in the Fuerte Four.

FLOUR TORTILLAS

CONNIE ALVAREZ BRACKET

#1 Sonoratown vs #4 Mexicali Taco: Connie’s notes: “Here's the thing – it was excruciating last year when at the very end of judging, standing on the tiny stage, I was among the four who had to choose between Sonoratown and Burritos La Palma's flour tortillas. They were both so, so good. As an indecisive person, I was so glad that this year the choice was much easier. Mexicali Taco is nothing to sneeze at, but Sonoratown? Mmmmm-mm-mmm. Soft, supple, subtle flavor bomb.” WINNER: Sonoratown

#3 La Azteca vs #2 HomeState: HomeState’s wonderful tortilla stayed in my food memory bank because it surprised me. Last year, I was skeptical...and silly. How could this hip place make a "real" tortilla? Well, let me tell you, hip people are hip for a reason – they are cultural and culinary cognoscenti, fearlessly congregating wherever quality and earned credibility meet. In this case, the path leads to Homestate: Good stretch, meal unto itself, perfectly salted. La Azteca reps East L.A. well, but just can’t win here. WINNER: HomeState

GUSTAVO ARELLANO BRACKET

#1 Burritos La Palma vs #12 Las Cuatro Milpas: One of the many reasons why I started the #TortillaTournament was to have an excuse to drive around Southern California and learn something about a region I pretend to know, and thereby humble myself with how much I don’t know. 

Such ignorance led me to Las Cuatro Milpas in San Bernardino, which has been in business for over 50 years yet gets constantly overlooked for two reasons: Everyone in SoCal outside the 909 mistakes it for the far-more-famous restaurant of the same name down in San Diego, and it’s just up the street from Mitla Cafe, the oldest full-fledged Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, and the place where Glenn Bell infamously got the idea to make the tacos that eventually became Taco Bell.

It’s a shame, because Las Cuatro Milpas handmakes their flour tortillas, which means they’re irregularly shaped and puff up and are slightly salty and just wonderful. It’s a far-better tortilla than its #12 seed would indicate, a low ranking it received because I really knew little about it at first. But it wasn’t enough to take down Burritos La Palma, which needs no salt to achieve its near-perfect flour apex. Plus, it heated easier than Las Cuatro Milpas, which had a tendency to burn a bit too fast. A slightly burnt corn tortilla is beautiful; a slightly burnt flour tortilla just leaves shards. WINNER: Burritos La Palma 

#3 Jimenez Ranch Market vs #2 La Monarca: I first learned about Jimenez Ranch Market a couple of years ago, when I had to walk in to its SanTana location. I had driven by it for over a decade but never bothered to stop in, because there’s a Northgate Gonzalez near my PO Box of a house in Anaheim. When I finally visited Jimenez, I saw steamy bags of freshly made flour tortillas that I couldn’t buy: gotta place an order the day before, I was told. When I finally did, they asked me if I wanted the tortillas con polvo: with a sprinkle of flour to finish it off. The tortillas on their own a thick yet pliable, but the flour transforms its flavor into something nearly creamy — a true mini-miracle. 

In many ways, La Monarca does the best overall job in the flour tortilla bracket, because they’re the only ones remaining that are from a chain and thus mass-produced, while the others are all hand-made in small batches. Despite the scale, La Monarca’s small flour tortillas are delicious, helped mucho by the Sonoran wheat they use. You can taste the almost-bread-like flavor that nevertheless doesn’t overwhelm your tastebuds, like a straight-wheat tortilla. La Monarca is an unacknowledged pioneer in elevating flour tortilla culture in Los Angeles, but it’s that delicious Sonoran wheat that allows it to eke past Jimenez. WINNER: La Monarca


Freshly made flour tortillas from Sonoratown, last year's #TortillaTournament winner and the #1 seed this time around. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

FLOUR TORTILLA  ¡ESO EIGHT! MATCHUPS

#1 Sonoratown vs #2 HomeState

#1 Burritos La Palma vs #2 La Monarca

Sonora-style flour tortillas continue their recent domination in the category, and in the flour bracket you see something that didn’t happen last year: the #1 and #2 seeds for each bracket face off for Fuerte Four glory: All of these are spectacular and worthy of advancing into the Fuerte Four — but only two can advance...YIKES!

Made it down this far, folks? I’ll say it again: 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!