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Thousands Show up for ‘KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament’ in DTLA, the First Annual Food Event in the Country That Honors the Tortilla

9:27 AM PDT on September 13, 2019

    [dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]o here we were, a throng of Angelenos who have gathered to munch on tortilla samples on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The reason all of us are here? To find out who has the absolute best flour and corn tortillas in all of Southern California.  

    LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes across the street from Olvera Street hosted KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament and 32 producers each of corn or flour tortillas had been winnowed to five finalists. The winner with the best tortillas as decided by a panel of judges would get to take home the grand prize: the Golden Tortilla. If you are a follower of KCRW, you probably heard segments throughout previous weeks announcing the outcomes of the individual contests in the bracket-style phase of the event sometimes deemed “Masa Madness.” 

    Eastside Tacos, who brought a trompo with some proper al pastor and El Ruso, slangin’ their homemade flour tortillas (which made it to Round 2) slathered with a mess of beans, cheese and your choice of meat, were among the vendors on hand to feed the crowd. There was tortilla painting for kids of all ages and cooking demos as well. The vibe was underscored by the soundtrack laid down by KCRW DJs José Galván and Raul Campos who spun tracks representing the new KCRW playlist, which is like the old one, but with more cumbia. 

    Journalist and author of Taco USA, Gustavo Arellano presided over the ceremonies and the judging of the tortillas along with fellow jurors KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman, Good Food producer, Nick Liao, KCRW Communications Director Connie Alvarez and guest judge, comedian, and Tejana, Cristela Alonzo. When the flour finally settled (and the masa was slaked), it was Taco María and HomeState who emerged victorious in the corn and flour categories respectively. 

    'Angelenos are sick of the Mission-Guerrero duopoly that has dominated American and Mexican households for too long, and are looking for advice on how to eat tortillas better.'

    Taco María won its division for the second straight year and was also declared best overall tortilla, garnering the Golden Tortilla. Chef Carlos Salgado addressed the crowd, saying that the heirloom blue corn which he imports from Mexico—the blue corn which makes the tortillas that we were tasting—is one of the key ingredients that inspires his cooking. The Costa Mesa restaurant recently received a Michelin star and has been called a “best restaurant” by numerous publications. The tortillas are perhaps the cornerstone in what makes his Mexican-inspired “Alta California” cuisine compelling. 

    HomeState won in flour and also was the crowd favorite. For owner Briana Valdez it was great but surreal. She says, “Before HomeState, having a taco on a good flour tortilla in L.A. was a dream and now there's a competition for them…sharing the food from my Texas childhood is so personal and winning this competition has made my entire family proud.” 

    The late Jonathan Gold once proposed the theory that the taco is 'the basic unit of consumption in Southern California.'

    The Tortilla Tournament—while ostensibly a March Madness-style face-off to crown the top tortilla of the southland—is just as much a celebration of the handmade tortilla, a thing of real substance and nourishment, the taco. In recent times tortillas have been in danger of succumbing to the sort of industrialization that gave us white bread. This is the second iteration of the contest and Arellano says that more people showed up this year than last. “Angelenos are sick of the Mission-Guerrero duopoly that has dominated American and Mexican households for too long, and are looking for advice on how to eat tortillas better,” he says. 

    The late Jonathan Gold once proposed the theory that the taco is “the basic unit of consumption in Southern California.” Often the tendency for the tortilla has been into playing the role of the lowest common denominator in the taco equation, a bland, insipid, flabby cracker, that merely contains its delicious contents. Sometimes you might even think that the role of the tortilla is to be nondescript. In addition to Taco Maria and HomeState, tasters could also sample tortillas from the other finalists: Burritos La Palma and La Monarca for flour and Kernel of Truth Organics for corn. None of their tortillas were bland on their own.

    Salgado gives his speech befoe taking home the Golden Tortilla.

    If you started early and navigated the queues correctly, you could taste through the lineup of finalists and play along with the panel as they went through deliberations (next time, scorecards?). The tortillas were all great, and each had their subtle, unique qualities. Tasting them side by side, or one after the other allows you to truly appreciate the differences. It is a lot like beer or wine tasting. You may think you have an idea of what a flavor is, but it really helps to compare and contrast. 

    The tortillas were served on their own, leaving no blemish or flaw unexposed, and vulnerable to the demanding palates of the attendees who love them. While cooks added a swipe of butter or a touch of salsa to sway the vote of us, the public tasters, the judging panel was required to eat theirs unadulterated. But even without adornment, these tortillas are satisfying. In Mexico, where life-shattering tortillas are easier to find, a pinch of salt and a fresh tortilla—endearingly called a taco de sal—still warm from the press is sometimes all you need. At the event, the people who attended learned to appreciate tortillas by themselves. Specifically, the earthy chewiness of the corn tortillas and the buttery-soft breezy-ness of flour ones. 

    Perhaps only in this city is such an event possible at the moment. 

    Trying to crown an overall winner from both categories might be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but ultimately that’s beside the point. What you may have thought walking in was that this event was supposed to be a tortilla SmackDown, but really it was just a clever way to entice you into a festival celebrating California’s unofficial state dish. It was also a chance to consider what goes into making the best tortillas, something that Angelenos seem primed to do. “I was really impressed by the turnout!” Valdez says. “People waited in extensive lines and were grateful to share in our joy and celebration of tortillas. It was such a collective, feel-good event. So many people connected with our story and shared their stories with us about how they grew up eating flour tortillas made by their mom or grandmother.” 

    Perhaps only in this city is such an event possible at the moment. 

    So where does the Tortilla Tournament go from here? Arellano says, “There is no limit… There are still dozens of tortillerias in Southern California that have not been included in the #TortillaTournament, and we've only scratched the restaurant game…I always want to push the boundaries of the tournament.” Next year, look for tortillerias from Santa Maria, Bakersfield, Coachella, and Vista in an anticipated expansion, with an eye towards a national or even international scope. But maybe not from Mexico just yet, which Arellano says is, “a whole other DESMADRE.”

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