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Gustavo Arellano Reveals His Favorite Taco in L.A. and Speaks on the Times’ Racial Reckoning: ‘Keep Us Accountable’

12:10 PM PDT on October 16, 2020

    [dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]efore anyone cared to appreciate the hundreds of mom-and-pop tortillerias sprinkled around Sur Califas for the community institutions that they are, Gustavo Arellano identified the tortilla for what it was: an integral staple food full of nuances and stories.

    It is the third year of his annual Tortilla Tournament with KCRW, and he has just announced the final “Fuerte Four” this week. What started as 64 tortillas have now painstakingly boiled down to Taco Maria and El Ruso for the corn category, and Homestate and El Cholo. Arellano will announce the tortilla champions this Sunday afternoon via a Zoom edition of his tournament finale event. The “SoCal Muckraker” and author of Taco USA will host, alongside Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s Good Food, and judges Mona Holmes from Eater LA and Connie Alvarez (KCRW). 

    L.A. TACO caught up with the freshly promoted Columnist at the LA Times over mesquite-grilled asada at El Ruso to discuss embracing your nerdom for tortillas and getting an inside look at the racial and equitable reckoning happening among his colleagues at the Times. 

    L.A. TACO: So why are we at El Ruso?

    Gustavo Arellano: Because the fuckin’ food’s good! Simple as that.

    I found out about El Ruso because of Jenn from Sonoratown. There was a sense of flour tortilla-based collegiality. Instead of being a rival, Jen’s like, “Hey, I know this really good spot. They need some business.”

    Is El Ruso your favorite taco in Los Angeles?

    I love this place because it encapsulates everything that is L.A., Southern California, and specifically taco culture. It’s Mexican, it’s immigrant, it’s regional Mexican, so it’s all a story there. Walter Soto (El Ruso’s taquero and owner) is a hustler, and he is a success.

    I found out about El Ruso because of Jenn from Sonoratown. There was a sense of flour tortilla-based collegiality. Instead of being a rival, Jen’s like, “Hey, I know this really good spot. They need some business.” Now he’s all blown up, and I mean, how wonderful that we’re doing this while he's literally building a permanent spot con paredes y todo eso right next to us. And we’re in East L.A. This is the heart of Mexican culture in Southern California. On top of that, the food is just amazing, I mean las tortillas, el chorizo, the chicken, and like— everything I love about L.A., everything I love about Southern California. 

    Everything about my Southern California is all here at El Ruso.

    Do you want me to correct you?

    Yeah! Go for it.

    We’re in Boyle Heights.

    I’m from Orange County! To us, it’s all the fuckin same. East L.A., Boyle Heights. Although, you know when I—when I made the left off of Indiana, the ARCO station right there said East L.A., so talk to them.

    You know this is kind of a contentious topic, right? Boyle Heights dismissed as East Los Angeles?

    Of course, one million percent. If people fucking said ‘SanTana is Anaheim,’ I’d correct them too, so, please!

    So El Ruso’s corn tortillas are in the running to take home your coveted tortilla trophy in the corn category—not flour?

    Yeah, his corn tortillas, that’s a funny thing. He gets all the hype for his flour tortillas, as he should. But they’ve never done well in my tortilla tournament; they never got into the Suave 16. Last year, he lost in the second round. This year, he lost in the first round. I think he was in my category last year because I was in the flour category last year, and there were just better flour tortillas out there. 

    But his corn—the minute I tasted them I was, like, wow. And of course, L.A. Taco were the ones who did the first story, which you know you beat everyone—I’m like ‘fuck man!’ I ate them, and I’m like, ‘Damn! These are fuckin’ amazing, AMAZING corn tortillas. Amazing.’ 

    It’s interesting, especially with food culture—that we insist everything has to be political, everything has to be woke...It’s important, but in the end, flavor’s flavor!

    They made it to the Fuerte Four this year, which is crazy. I did not think they were going to get that far. They’re going to beat Kernel of Truth Organics. They beat all these other, way more prominent corn tortillas in Southern California. That, to me, shows—going back to my favorite tacos—just the dexterity and the layers of stories in Southern California. You just have to ask, you just have to push a little bit more, and you’re going to have a whole different narrative of what you think the original story was.

    Yeah, and he’s up against Taco Maria. Talk about the tortilla version of David and Goliath going head to head.

    In a generation where we love words like “farmer direct,” and “organic,” “sustainable,” you know? Look when it comes to these tortillas, every tortilla—the best tortillas can lose to the worst tortillas on any given day, it’s like that old NFL saying, ‘Any given Sunday.’ I mean, look at Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, and when it comes to games that count, he chokes. Again and again and again, that’s why I call him KerCHOKE.

    You match people up, and even the mighty will always fall. In the three years that we’ve had the tournament, we’ve only had four people go every single year to the Suave 16, that shows that there’s this turmoil all the time. But the best of the best will always rise to the top. The most consistent best of the best too.

    So, in your tortilla criteria: Does taste beat being woke about the political implications that can come with corn and its associations with NAFTA and Monsanto?

    For the tortilla tournament, it is. In the last two years, the finalists in the corn category have been the kings of sustainable tortilla culture for corn, which is Taco Maria and Kernel of Truth. They’re both legends and all that. Usually, when it comes down to those final rounds, it’s just going to be people who use corn, water, and lime. 

    Here’s the thing: You think your tortilleria is good, and it probably is, but you haven’t been to these other tortillerias all over Southern California. The competition is fuckin ruthless. 

    In the past, you had La Princecita go far with corn water and lime. As much as I love all these stories, though, they have to be great corn tortillas. They have to have a great flour flavor and great corn flavor. They just have to be better, their politics. It’s interesting, especially with food culture—that we insist everything has to be political, everything has to be woke...It’s important, but in the end, flavor’s flavor! I mean, if we want to have a political story, well, you know that discussion is a different tournament. That’s not a tournament that I want to do, though. 

    How long have you been wanting to make tortillas fighting against each other into a thing?

    (Gustavo pauses and orders a Squirt)

    It’s funny because it’s always about hindsight. When I was the Editor at OC Weekly, we used to do a column called Tortilla Tuesday, where we would just highlight local tortillerias in Orange County, give ‘em a grade, all of that. I was just always fascinated by all these little tortillerias. As a food critic, you’re always looking for another place to write about. As a historian, you look, and you go to these places, and they have these old yellowing pictures from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I would wonder, ‘I wonder what’s their story?’ I did a profile last year: the oldest tortilleria in Southern California is Arriola’s Tortilleria in Indio. All the way fuckin’ out there in Indio, since 1927. 

    There are so many tortillerias across Southern California. A sports-style tournament is a ludicrous idea, but if you’re going to go there, then fucking go there! God bless the people at KCRW, but sometimes, it’s just such an NPR mentality. The rest of the world knows what a sports tournament is. So it should be, but once we explained it, they got totally on board. It’s been a smash for KCRW.

    Here’s the thing: you think your tortilleria is good, and it probably is, but you haven’t been to these other tortillerias all over Southern California. The competition is fuckin ruthless. I did the story about Arriola’s, aw man it blew up! KCRW was shocked at how many hits they were getting for a story about a tortilleria, but you think about it, it’s tortillas, and people like tortillas. Also, it’s Indio, so people in Indio are passing around in that community. It’s community journalism at its most delicious.

    At its most essential, because you’re telling the stories, not just of where to go eat but the stories behind them. 

    Speaking of delicious community journalism, do you miss writing for L.A. TACO?

    Of course! Look, I love the LA Times. LA Times, they’ve been so kind to me and champion my ideas. More than anything, they were so kind to me while my mom was passing away. Literally, I get this job, and within two months, I get the job, my mom is dying. I told them I’ll still work. Hector Becerra had to tell me to stop working and just be with my mom. And that was like a good two months, and they said to take all the time I need to breathe. I’m a loyal guy, so I’m going to stay with them as long as they need me to stay with them or want me to stay with them. 

    Listen to what the Latino reporters and Black reporters have to say as far as criticizing the Times. Follow our lead, in other words.

    But of course, I miss L.A. TACO, the only critique I would give now that I’m writing for the LA Times is. Look, I understand, like, they want me to tackle big, huge issues. For stories where you can synthesize an incredible topic through one person or whatever. I love that as a challenge, but sometimes you just want to fuckin’ geek out man, you just want to get as micro as possible. 

    Like I think my best L.A. TACO story— well, the most Gustavo TACO story, let’s go with that. The most Gustavo TACO story was the fuckin’ foodways of the Chicano blowouts. Like, here we have these high school protests. Who the fuck would ever think… let’s talk about how food influenced the Blowouts? Only me!

    Now, could I have done that for the LA Times? Yeah. But it would’ve been different. I would have had to have something a little bit bigger. It wouldn’t have been so, like, micro-nerd shit out.

    And like I do miss that, sometimes I also believe you have to do a small story to do a bigger story that leads to something bigger. I would never really did that for L.A. TACO, but we would do that for OC Weekly. Like let’s do a 200-word shit-talking post to provoke someone to do something, and then they would do something else, and we could do something else like that like. I think with journalism; you always have to be looking towards the future. It's 3-D chess, like ‘okay it’s gonna be this move and that move, and in 15 moves it’s first gonna be this move’ and something like that.’ But L.A. TACO— thanks again for allowing me to write the little that I did. It was wonderful.

    I do not feel any pressure more than what I put on myself.

    I know the LA Times has been facing an internal racial reckoning. What can you comment on, and what the hell is going on?

    I am the co-chair of the Latino Caucus with Paloma Esquivel, so I’m definitely part of this group of people who want better equity at the Times. I also want more coverage and want more Latinos to be hired around the paper. It’s interesting because I’m still coming at it as someone who hasn’t been at the Times that long. I’ve only been there for a year and eight months. I’m not a person who’s been there five years, ten years, 15 years, 20. 

    That paper has been through a lot. Like, they have been through some shitty ass owners, which is not Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, and some crazy-ass editors. I think a great newspaper, for the Times to be completely great, management has to not only acknowledge the frustrations that of my colleagues and myself, but move on them. You can’t make empty promises. For instance, we have the Latino Caucus and the Black Caucus asking for more representation for the next five years, and the owner, Dr. Soon Shiong, agreed to that. The next step is, like, ‘okay, we’ll take you in good faith, but we need to see a plan. Like what is the plan to hire people.’

    As long as we see steps in the right direction, we’re fine, but if we don’t see any actions, people are going to be mad. The cool thing is the LA Times newsroom is getting a reputation as one of the most ornery-nest. I think that’s a great thing. I think that leads to a lot of tension that can be avoided if management is more receptive to justice. 

    [In regards to the readers] Keep us accountable. But don’t say, ‘oh boycott LA Times because they’re not hiring enough writers.’ Listen to what the Latino reporters and Black reporters have to say as far as criticizing the Times. Follow our lead, in other words.

    So you’re only the sixth Latino columnist the Times has ever had? How do you feel to follow in Ruben Salazar’s footsteps? 

    I do not feel any pressure more than what I put on myself. I’m not going to pretend to be the next Salazar or the next Frank Del Olmo. I’m not going to be one of those legends. I’m just going to have to carve out whatever I am, and I mean, that’s the story of my career. 

    People always try to make me out to be something.

    Thanks for speaking with us. 

    Gustavo Arellano’s Tortilla Tournament with KCRW will host an event via Zoom this Sunday to crown the corn and flour tortilla champions. Register to attend here

    This interview was edited for length and clarity.

    This interview was transcribed by Daniel Suarez. 

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