Gustavo’s Tortilla Runner’s diary

In the spring of 2021, I enrolled in Gustavo Arellano’s narrative nonfiction class at Orange Coast College after years of asking for his advice on how to get into food journalism. Attending his course was one of the most rewarding experiences we have had recently and one that would not have happened if the course had not been offered online. After completing the course with an A, it was time to start looking for stories.

What does all of this have to do with tortillas? Well everything. On August 1st, my first night after moving into my new apartment, I received a DM from Gustavo: “Would you like to be a scout for my tortilla tournament?”

Of course I would scout. I just thought he was referring to next year’s tournament.

Not correct.

A week later, Gustavo emailed me tortilla clips and a tortilla directory, complete with addresses (this point is important) and brief descriptions of each competing tortilla. My tortilla pickups would span two days, taking me from Indio, to the San Fernando Valley, to Riverside, to Venice and so many other cities in between.

Gustavo’s advice on the itinerary?

“Tuesday get West LA and all East LA you can,” he wrote to me. “Wednesday, start early in East LA and then drive towards Indio, then take the 91 back to Riverside and Anaheim. And don’t let the clamp hit you. “

In his journalism class, Gustavo liked to mention that he was going into the quantum realm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a place where alternative realities and possibilities existed. He said this to describe the travel we would take to work on stories and how multiple worlds exist on top of each other if you knew what to look for. He referred to it again when, on the morning of my first tortilla trip, he told me about the routes to different cities and tortillerías.

“Everything here revolves around quantum domains!” He wrote to me. “Start triangulating a strategy NOW.”

Well, even Ant Man would get bogged down in LA midday traffic. In fact, Loki’s “I’ve been falling for 30 minutes!” Joke from “Thor: Ragnarok” would be a more accurate comparison.

Here are some observations and thoughts on the overall tortilla running experience:

  • If someone says “leave early” when driving from Upland to LA, they most likely mean that they are leaving before 8:30 in the morning. Gustavo’s joke when I told him I need cash? “You should always have $ 300 with you. Damn millennials. ”Noticed.
  • The aztecs has really good burritos. Ah. They taste even better if you haven’t eaten all morning because you’re stuck on 10 on the way to Santa Monica and then have to drive back to East LA. Props for giving away extra tortillas.
  • “We DO NOT SELL TORTILLAS.” Casablanca has tortillas but doesn’t sell you tortillas. This was from the owner. I had to buy a meal to get their powdery flour tortillas as a side dish after just eating said burrito from The aztecs. Of all the tortilla joints in the world, I’ve had to go into this one. I told Gustavo that they should lose points because they make them incredibly difficult to access. I don’t know if they did. (Gustavo note: They didn’t. Damn millennials.)

That means there is always room for The Russians incredible Sonora-style flour tortillas tacos.

  • Know your tortilleria. Acapulco Tortillería in Vermont does not sell tortillas. Masa only. I know because it isn’t Acapulco Tortillería on S. Kern St 929, the Acapulco Tortillería, for which I should buy both corn and flour tortillas. Thanks Apple Maps. To be fair, I should have double-checked the address before driving there Strength. That took me 30 minutes. Apparently there is also an Acapulco Tortillería in Santa Ana. Thank the gods I didn’t go down the 5 for that. There are many Acapulco Tortillerías, but only one on S. Kern Street 929.
  • You live dangerously if you decide to park in the structure in the Sonoratown is located without paying. I had never run up or down the entrance of a parking garage so quickly before. There is a first time for everything. Great props to have your flour tortillas ready.
  • Some places will look at you curiously if you walk in and simply ask to buy tortillas. Some, as was the case Sonoritas, will seek help from a manager for just a few of their flour tortillas.
  • The sense of community in the fight against the pandemic was inspiring. In the tortillerías and restaurants I visited, signs telling customers “to wear a mask, to be safe so we can get past it” predominated. Huntington Beach can learn a lot from these spots!
  • On the first day, I didn’t get back to Orange until around 7 p.m. “The game beat you,” Gustavo wrote after I left Loqui in Culver City, telling him I wouldn’t get all of LA’s tortillas in one day. But I’m stubborn, and since I was heading towards 10 and 57 anyway, I decided to make one last stop for the day around San Gabriel Market in Baldwin Park. The game wouldn’t beat me tomorrow.

Photo by Sean Vukan.

  • First approach to the loading ramps at La Chapalita comes with some fear. A wholesale warehouse in South El Monte, La Chapalita, hurls flour tortillas that Wolfgang Puck apparently calls “the best in California”, cash only. Two box vans on either side of the entrance towered up like the gates of Argonath on the Anduin River in The Lord of the Rings, warning intruders not to enter the factory. Are you just going to the loading dock? They do. And the worker was quick and helpful to get the tortillas.
  • If this is your first time in the mall from Flor de Mayo Tortilleria in Fontana you will see a Superior Grocers supermarket. There is a La Michoacana at the same address as Flor de Mayo, 16075 Foothill Blvd. I almost texted Gustavo to tell him that the Tortillería was closed and is now part of the Starbucks of Ice Cream, but then I noticed the “A” next to the address. There had to be 16075 more. After a bit of walking, I discover more shops on the sides of the buildings. Tortillería Flor de Mayo was actually still operating, and the art on their corn tortilla is a beauty.
  • Arriolas in Indio is far. Very far. But it was pretty cool to step into a tortillería that has been in business since 1927, and with a breakfast special of two burritos for $ 7, these chorizo ​​and egg burritos were a fine morning meal. They also have a tamale boat that I will eat next time.
  • Whenever I go to Cafe Mitla in San Bernardino I say to myself, “Man, fuck Glenn Bell.” After all, this is where the founder of Taco Bell has the recipe that he used to create his substitute empire. But then I remember Taco Bell serving as a gateway to better, more authentic Mexican food for thousands, if not millions, of people, including this Orange County white boy. Quesalupas one day; Tacos de Cabeza the next.
  • Widths Riverside has really good margaritas along with their great flour tortillas.
  • A dozen handmade tortillas from The cholo in Anaheim Hills costs $ 25. I repeat, $ 25. While driving to El Cholo, Gustavo mistook her for El Torito and when he realized his mistake he said, “Same difference, haha.” That kind of comment made me think he was just dismissive. Anyway, since I was in Anaheim Hills with an El Torito-esque exterior, I thought, “Well, that makes sense.” It wasn’t until I got back to Alta Baja and dropped the tortillas that he immediately sang El Cholo’s praises.

“They’re $ 25,” I told him.

“Yes, but they are worth it,” said Gustavo. “They use milk in their tortillas and have kept the same recipe since they opened almost a century ago. Try one! “

The verdict: warm, soft, fluffy, made to order and chewy. So good. Now I understand why these had to be called up after I left Cob in Riverside.

The mural of Lenchitas in Pacoima. Photo by Sean Vukan.

The following Thursday morning, obviously impressed with my record return time on the second day, Gustavo asked if I could help get corn tortillas in LA and the San Fernando Valley. Of course I said yes.

  • The mural at Lenchitas in Pacoima is pretty cool.
  • The smell of fresh corn tortillas is intoxicating. In fact, having fresh corn tortillas in your car all afternoon will leave you hungry all day. Thank the food gods for the carnitas The five points. Speaking of the five points …
  • Los Cinco Puntos is named after the famous intersection where Boyle Heights joins East Los Angeles. It is located between three thoroughfares: Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Indiana Street, and Lorena Street. The exit is from Lorena, the entrance is from Indiana. I’m telling you this because when you are here for the first time like me, you happen to enter through the exit and therefore have to go through the entrance, which when it is full is no fun.
  • When there is a painted menu on the wall, like the one at Tortilleria La California At Cypress Park, there is an 82% chance the tortillas will be delicious. And, well, they are in the Tournament of Champions, so point proven.
  • The tortillera at Taste of mexico Panorama City no longer makes corn tortillas. Why? Because she’s staying home because of the pandemic. As a result, Sabor a Mexico had to leave the tournament. Thanks for nothing, pandejos.

The remarkable thing about this experience was seeing the history of these tortillerías and restaurants in their communities. Arriolas have been around since 1927, Graciana’s Tortilla Factory for 81 years. Carrillos it has been going on for 75 years in the San Fernando Valley; Romeros has been around since 1968 and they supply some local costcos with tortillas (but not all. Believe me, I checked!)

Your legacy reminded me of something Anthony Bourdain said in 2016. “It’s something that LA does really, really well,” he said. “It has great old bars and old institutions that still function completely unironically. Just so direct. ‘This is what we do, we’ve always done it, go on, get off my lawn.’ ”

I will never see the trip to Vegas or Arizona like that again now. I’ll never see East LA right away either. The time and effort it takes to make all of the high quality tortillas I’ve bought – often under $ 2 for a dozen – is amazing.

Now all I have to do is move on and apply the lessons and advice Gustavo taught me. And I can start by buying better tortillas. And never again underestimate the daunting journey that is a # TortillaTournament range …

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