Los Angeles has a wealth of tacos, from trucks to gourmet. But how many people take time to focus on the tortilla, the very foundation of a taco?
Cue the Tortilla Awards, an event that pits some of the best tortilla makers in the area against one another to see who brings home the gold — seriously, there are golden tortilla plaques involved.
“We really want to celebrate the idea of what is the foundation of a great taco and how do all those elements work in synergy,” said restaurateur and MasterChef judge chef Aarón Sánchez, who is also a Tequila Cazadores brand ambassador. “Most primary and fundamental is the tortilla. It is the canvas, the base.”
The tortilla throwdown went down Tuesday night at North Hollywood Tex-Mex restaurant El Tejano, which was filled with music, people and colorful decorations. Tequila Cazadores organized the event, which also takes place in Chicago and Austin, Texas, because what’s a fiesta without tequila?
Five of L.A.’s top tortilla makers showcased their skills in making tortillas from scratch on-site and then preparing tacos with those tortillas.
Competitors’ creations ranged from classic to creative to somewhat bizarre — maraschino cherries made an appearance.
The five taqueros and dishes battling for tortilla supremacy were:
Juan J. Sanjuan III, Gloria’s Restaurant in Huntington Park
Taco el Mil Amores: carnitas, encebolladas, nopales and avocado salsa on a nopal tortilla
Fernando Cesar Ibarra Villagomez, La Tostaderia in downtown L.A.
Tia Chon taco: lechon al horno, adobo de cerveza, avacado puree, verdura salsa abuelita on a nopal jalapeño tortilla
Rocio Camacho, La Diosa de Moles in Paramount
Red Velvet shrimp taco: shrimp in tequila and lime cream, garnished with maraschino cherries and sauce on a beet masa tortilla
Mario Medina, Don Chente Bar and Grill in L.A. and the Main Course in Ramona
Al pastor taco: pork with avocado serrano salsa on an hoja santa tortilla
Francisco “Paco” Perez, Aqui Es Texcoco in Chula Vista
Taco de barbacoa: barbacoa and DIY garnishes (onions, salsas, papalo, lime) on a blue corn tortilla
“We have vetted out every taco participant to make sure we are getting the best of the best,” Sánchez said. “I worked with the team to make sure we are getting enough diversity and disparity between everyone’s focus on tacos. So many of the chefs are taking so many cool liberties with the flavors of the tortillas.”
Most chefs used a tortilla press, but Fernando Villagomez’s team went old-school, with Susana Gutierrez hand-pressing tons of nopal jalapeño tortillas for hours.
Sánchez and food writer Javier Cabral, local bartender Damian Diaz and bartender and brand ambassador Manny Hinojosa judged each entry to decide who had the best taco, the best tortilla and how well each dish paired with a tequila cocktail.
A good tortilla is all about flavor, texture and durability, Sánchez said.
Diaz made a special, light-on-tequila cocktail for the evening that was designed to hydrate and cleanse the palate after each taco. The Curandero (Spanish for healer) is made with Tequila Cazadores reposado, cucumber juice, honey syrup, fresh lime and Salers aperitif made with gentian root.
A crowd of hungry Angelenos consumed tequila cocktails and unlimited tacos throughout the evening and voted for their favorite, who received the People’s Choice Award.
And now, for the moment of truth, here are the winners of L.A.’s first Tequila Cazadores Tortilla Awards…
People’s Choice: Fernando Cesar Ibarra Villagomez
Best Taco: Juan J. Sanjuan III
Best Tortilla: Mario Medina
Chef Medina, who’s been making tortillas for 25 years, says his winning tortilla used to be made by his grandmother and is his favorite tortilla to make.
“In my opinion it’s the best ever in Mexico,” Medina says of the tortilla made with traditional herb hoja santa.
So what makes a good tortilla in the eyes of the newly minted Tortilla Award winner?
Medina says it needs to be made from scratch with corn, it needs to be good quality and “you need to make it with love.”