Be careful what you wish for. When I heard the Tucson Taco Festival was coming, I hoped that someone would pick me to be a judge. Voila! Next time I’m going to wish that I win Powerball but I know — first — I have to buy a ticket.
Most of the judges show up in a timely fashion and wait awhile by the entrance to be told to come inside. Then we wait again in the tent with the (thankfully) big fan blowing down on us. There are four big tables with six judges to a table. At my table is myself, food writers Rita Connelly and Mary Paganelli, and three people from Scottsdale who have been judges before. Sara and her husband were a blast and we all talk, talk, talk about food. The sixth guy never smiled. Ever.
Food and drink bring people together. Everyone seems to be having a great time. We are all bright eyed and bushy tailed, expectant and somewhat hungry, ready to begin. We receive green punch arm bands for free admittance into the tequila expo. That put a big smile on everyone’s faces (except the one judge at my table). We also had access to bottled water and cerveza. Sure, why wouldn’t I want an icy cold beer at 10:45 a.m.?
With each round we each taste five or six different tacos categorized by protein source — chicken, pork, beef, and seafood. For those who stay longer there’s guacamole, salsas, and dessert.
While everyone at a table tastes the same tacos, different tables are tasting different tacos. The bottom line is nobody knows whose tacos they are eating. It’s all very secret agent.
We rate tacos from 1 to 9; 1 being wretched and 9 being astounding. I like to be generous with my ratings. First we judge on presentation. Some of the presentations were uninspired while others were over the top. The presentation that garnered the most screams, hoots, and hollers included real money and medium size bottles of tequila. Sounds like bribery to me. Unfortunately, that was not at my table.
Most of the tacos are now a blur to me. I know I liked the pork and seafood better than the chicken and beef. The beef were my least favorite. One standout pork was crispy almost burnt, very BBQ-y, with crisp bites of nopalitos. Another used a fried plantain as the shell with grilled chicken and a strawberry salsa. Still another favorite was a crispy taco shell filled with fresh, minimally adorned white fish and just the right amount of garnish. That one taco reminded me of eating tacos on the beach by the Sea of Cortez. Maybe by the end I craved simplicity. I also liked a spicy shrimp taco.
In between judging we wandered around and explored. It was hot and the crowd kept growing. I wandered into the tequila expo tent and sampled Le Tesoro and a pomegranate margarita. On my second visit to the tequila tent, the crowd had swelled and I sampled yet another margarita and the most sublime tequila poured over a mix of strawberries, citrus, pineapple, and jalapenos. I wanted to go back for the chocolate tequila but ran out of steam.
One of the 30 tequila vendors
All in all the Tucson Taco Festival has a wonderful vibe. I hope it becomes an annual event. I enjoyed meeting some of the other judges and yes, I’d like to be a judge again next year. Congratulations to the winners.
Here are judges from radio & print media – they still look mighty enthusiastic even to the end. Click here for part 2 — with lots more photos.