Tamara Palmer

Gustavo Arellano on What It Takes to Win His Great Tortilla Tournament

Tamara Palmer
Gustavo Arellano on What It Takes to Win His Great Tortilla Tournament

BY TAMARA PALMER

PHOTO BY AMY TA/KCRW

Gustavo Arellano is one of my favorite writers in California — he’s got an incisive wit and he is absolutely to be trusted when it comes to eating, as I learned last year when we shared a memorable dinner together so he could let me bounce ideas off of him for what would eventually become Alta Magazine’s October 2018 cover story. So I’m really excited that I find myself in Los Angeles during the weekend when he’s hosting his second annual tortilla throwdown: KCRW & Gustavo’s Great Tortilla Tournament takes place from 3-7 p.m. on Sunday Sunday Sunday (September 8) at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and is free to RSVP.

I reached out to Gustavo in advance of this weekend’s festivities to find out his criteria for what ultimately makes for great corn and flour tortillas.

“For corn, it has to have a deep, earthy corn flavor with only three ingredients: corn, lime, and water,” he said. “Once you eat enough corn tortillas, you can taste those that have any sort of preservative, because a sour flavor seeps in. I prefer my corn tortillas gorditas (thicker), and the best ones are a yellow so dark it's almost brown.

“For flour, it really depends. I like them thin and buttery, like the Sonora-style ones currently in vogue in Southern California. But Tex-Mex tortillas, which are usually made with baking powder, are flaky and fat and just divine. And the ones from Pueblo, Colorado, are as thick as pita bread, salty, and SUPERB.”

The Final Four competing for the coveted Golden Tortilla have emerged from an initial field of 64 contenders, this year drawn from a wider geographical area than last year’s first event.

“One day, I drove from Ventura all the way to Indio picking up tortillas!” he said, which is dedication like whoa. “To get to my list, I did my research: good ones and even bad ones, because there has to be a #16 seed, you know. The only criteria is that they had to be locally made, whether you're a fast-food place like Chipotle, a mom-and-pop restaurant, a high-end eatery like Taco Maria, a local tortilleria, or whatever.”

Last year’s event motivated him to expand significantly: “Last year, we only did LA County, OC to Santa Ana, and the Inland Empire up to Riverside. This year, we went all the way to Oxnard (where two spots made it into our Suave 16) to Indio (location of the the oldest tortilleria in Southern California) to San Juan Capistrano. We only returned 16 contestants from last year, which meant there were 32 new entrants for folks to track.”

The Great Tortilla Tournament features tortilla tastings, multiple food vendors, a margarita and michelada bar, tortilla art and music sets from KCRW DJs Raul Campos and José Galván.

“We're teaching listeners and readers about tortilla culture in Southern California, and slowly expanding it to encompass as much of the state as possible,” Gustavo says of the event’s mission and trajectory. “Next year, I want to go all the way up to Santa Maria and Bakersfield; San Diego will have to wait until after that because it's a whole other universe!”

Gustavo and Evan Kleiman, the inspiring host of KCRW’s Good Food, have been tasked with a lot of tortilla tasting to get to this point. After weeks of intense competition, I wondered if Gustavo would want to take a tortilla break for a hot minute.

“I can never get tired of tortillas,” he said.