A tournament to find the best tortillas in Southern California

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 4. I’m Gustavo Arellano, writing from Orange County — and I’m a columnist, so I’m allowed to give opinions.

Such as: Tortillas are cool.

Yellow, white or blue corn. Sonoran, Tex-Mex, or Cal-Mex flour. As small as your palm; as large as a manhole cover. Tortillas are the daily bread for hundreds of millions of people across Mexico, Central America and the United States. In Southern California, tortillas are available at markets hipster and not, corner stores, Mexican restaurants and, of course, in tortillerias.

My favorite corn tortillas comes from Miramar Tortilleria in East Los Angeles — thick, earthy and so yellow that they’re almost brown. In 2018, while looking at a package after making some quesadillas and noticing that Miramar has been open since 1955, I wondered:

What’s its history? And what’s the best tortilla in Southern California?

Thus, KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament was born (for the record: I did not think up of the name).

Our premise is fiendishly simple and absolutely ludicrous: Match up 64 tortillas — 32 corn, 32 flour — available in Southern California and break them up into four seeded brackets of 16 participants (No. 1 seed against No. 16, No. 8 against No. 9) in a sports-style playoff. Have four judges face them off until only four tortillas remain — two corn, two flour. Hold a live event with samples, pit the corn champion against the flour champion, and crown the winner with the Golden Tortilla, a plaque with — yes — a gold-colored corn tortilla on it.

Return the previous year’s 16 finalists, and add 32 new ones. Repeat.

Wacko, right?

And yet we’re now in our fifth year of the tournament. We’ve had over 150 Southern California tortillas compete, from Santa Barbara to Coachella, the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, and all points in between. This year, we’ve got the mighty (former champion Taco Maria), the upstarts (El Burrito House in Bell sells the best breakfast burritos in Southern California right now) and the gross (Wal-Mart and Von’s tortillas, come on down!) We’ve seen a different winner every year and shocking upsets. We’ve helped to spark a renaissance of tortilla culture across the Southland and eaten a lot of tortillas.

But, as Emiliano Zapata would’ve said if anyone had ever bothered to ask him, there can never be enough tortillas.

More important, my #tortillatournament has helped to pop at least one of the many bubbles that rule life in Southern California.

Most people have go-to brands that they buy at their neighborhood market or tortilleria. So that means the people in Oxnard who get their tortillas from La Central Bakery (open since 1948) probably haven’t tasted the great corn tortillas from Playa Azul Tortilleria in Florence-Firestone. Through my tournament, people can learn how the other side eats — tortilla diplomacy for the win!

tortilla package art

Some of the contestants in this year’s KCRW and Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament, now in its fifth year.

(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

You can find this year’s contestants at this website, along with stories and a map (my fellow Times columnista Carolina A. Miranda did a wonderful analysis of the art on local tortilla packages). The competition is so fierce that Miramar isn’t a contestant — darn.

So who makes the best tortillas in Southern California?

The winner last year was Burritos La Palma, which makes fabulously fluffy flour tortillas. Right now, we’re down to eight contestants, with our Fuerte Four being unveiled on Wednesday. We’ll crown a winner Oct. 16 at Smorgasburg LA — see you there!

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

Proposal to house homeless in Boyle Heights Sears building is scaled back from 10,000 to 2,500 beds. And even that’s too many for many, if not most, residents. Los Angeles Times

103-year-old Eagle Rock gas station nominated as a historic monument. The Jay Risk Standard Oil Service Station — only 14 feet square — is squeezed between two buildings in the 1600 block of Colorado Boulevard. The Eastsider

Bird flu spreads to Southern California, infecting chickens, wild birds and other animals. Get that pollo a la brasa while you can. Los Angeles Times

Check out “The Times” podcast for essential news and more

These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

An L.A. “mansion tax” aims to raise money for housing. Karen Bass, Rick Caruso don’t support it. The city’s mayoral candidates find something to agree on. Los Angeles Times

In turnaround, L.A. council candidate offers “deepest apologies” over wage-theft cases. Danielle Sandoval, who’s running to replace Joe Buscaino, began to belt a different ballad once she started to lose endorsements. Los Angeles Times

Alex Villanueva press conference

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

New poll shows challenger Robert Luna holds lead over L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. My invite to Villanueva to go shopping for Stetsons to save his faltering campaign remains open. Los Angeles Times

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

How feds choreographed an elaborate fake murder to stop L.A. developer’s alleged plot. That sound you heard is Keith Morrison packing his suitcase and getting the first flight to LAX to do his take on a story with so many twists and turns it makes a double helix seem as swirling as a ruler. Los Angeles Times

California is dependent on prison labor for fighting fires. This must end. To paraphrase the legendary book by Carey McWilliams, a critique of our factories in the fires. Truthout

Monterey County supervisors say bad behavior must stop at Sheriff’s Office. Because outgoing Sheriff Steve Bernal doesn’t want Southern California to dominate the bad-sheriff sweepstakes, you know? Voices of Monterey Bay

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim. Because the spotted owl doesn’t need anything to drink — wait, wrong state, wrong decade … Los Angeles Times

California suffering through driest three years ever recorded, with no relief in sight. Well, hell. Los Angeles Times

New webseries “Normal Ain’t Normal” examines inequities in a post-pandemic Oakland. The four-episode webseries follows four working-class residents as they struggle to navigate their lives amid growing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. The Oaklandside

Josh Heinz’s Concert for Autism blends music and charity for a 15th consecutive year. The Coachella Valley is rich with musical icons, bands and charities—and the Concert for Autism melds all of those together each year into one of the area’s cornerstone events. Coachella Valley Independent

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

As a young man, I traveled the High Sierra by mule. After 59 years, I tried it again. Doug Smith, my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague and perhaps the only Pittsburgh Pirates fan in The Times newsroom, offers a poignant, playful remembrance of who he was, is and always will be. Los Angeles Times

No soap — Procter & Gamble’s Long Beach plant closed in 1988. The legendary Tim Grobarty takes us into the Iowa-by-the-sea time machine in his weekly newsletter. Long Beach Post

A San Francisco socialite coined “sugar daddy” and used her wealth to change the city. When is the Netflix limited series on Alma de Bretteville Spreckels happening? SFGATE

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 84, partly cloudy. San Diego: 75, partly cloudy. San Francisco: 68, morning clouds. San Jose: 77, partly cloudy. Fresno: 91, only city on this list forecast to be sunny! Sacramento: 88, partly cloudy.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Debora Masterson:

When I was about 11, living in Sepulveda (now called North Hills), my friend and I were riding horses in the neighborhood. She said, “Hey, let’s go ride up on the freeway.” The 405 was in the process of being built and it was finished, except it had not been paved yet. I told her that we couldn’t do that! But she said “Let’s go!” So I followed her and we rode up the Nordhoff Street south ramp and rode onto the freeway. It was a beautiful view from up there! Every time I enter the freeway from there, I think of that once in a lifetime moment!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to [email protected]

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