What made me think judging tacos would be a pleasant way to while away an afternoon? This is the question I asked myself -- about 12 tacos in -- at the Arizona Taco Festival held at Salt River Fields this past Saturday.
Don't get me wrong. I love tacos. And I've judged competitions before, so I knew going in that it wasn't going to be a piece of cake, so to speak. I guess what I didn't understand is what eating 24 tacos -- or really, 24 anything -- would feel like.
Here's how it went down -- literally:
After checking in at the front gate, I wandered the grounds -- past henna tattoo booths, a psychic who would read my future for 10 bucks, a chef demo stage, a Lucha Libre ring and a vast tequila expo -- until I found the judge's tent stuck off in the farthest back corner, its opening facing away from the activities of the festival. Ooh, we were being sequestered. How very official!
I checked in, received a badge that would allow me to eat and drink anything and everything for free (as if I'd actually want more tacos), found a taco-judging pal of mine who already knew the ropes and joined her at a table with four other judges, three of them seasoned in taco-evaluation. We chose our team captain whose duties would include displaying the boxes of tacos as they came in and gathering up our scores after each round.
There would be four rounds, one every hour, starting with chicken (noon), moving to pork, then beef and finally seafood (3 p.m.).
Some official person stood up and explained that scoring was 1 - 9, not 1- 10, one being inedible, nine being taco nirvana. And we were ready, all 40 of us, to start eating tacos.
Each contestant presented six tacos (one for each judge) in a specially designed box with six compartments. Contestants were allowed to decorate the boxes to the hilt, just as long as they didn't identify their restaurant or team name in any way.
Some came plain; some came fancy. And I found, over time, that once I got past the cute little sombrero or the clever serving plate, what really mattered to me most was how the taco tasted. We'd been told to think of it in just that way in our how-to-evaluate-a-taco class the week before, and that little insight proved to be true. Who gives a damn if the box is cute when the taco sucks? And conversely, who cares what the box looks like if the taco is delish? Even a cold Hamm's beer, tucked in the box (contestants were encouraged to be outlandish; beer bribes were okay too) didn't really add to or detract from the taco itself.
As the first box hit the table, our team leader opened it to show us how it was decorated, then passed out the six identical tacos inside, which we placed in the first square (of six) on our tasting placemats, adding the number our team leader called out in the top right corner of the square. We added that same number to our score sheets, proceeding in this fashion until our placemats contained six different tacos and our numbers were plugged in. Now we were ready to start eating and evaluating.
What ho! One of the first entrants chose to make Navajo tacos, putting spicy chicken on fry bread and getting all crazy with blue cheese, orange sections and an edible orange flower. It was out there, no question, but it was risky and fun and I really liked the oddball flavors together. My other favorite entry in the chicken category was completely traditional -- crispy shell, sprinkle of cotija cheese, shredded lettuce and a slice of avocado. Crunchy, simple, delicious. Yum!
One judge (a newbie) started making comments like, "I don't like this one" and "I love that one," and the veteran judges quickly shushed her because the idea here was not to come to consensus but rather to draw our own conclusions without anyone else's influence. We learned very quickly to limit ourselves to one, two, maybe three bites tops per taco. After each category, we got up and roamed around the festival. Okay, that's not quite true. Most of us headed straight for the tequila tent, where there was shade, plus a mind-boggling selection of premium tequilas to be sampled in tiny thimble-size cups. It was hot, though, and I knew I couldn't really keep a taco-centric head if I sipped more than a few at a time, which was definitely not the case for most of the 20- and 30-somethings who were in that tent with me. I also question just how much they were evaluating what they tasted, but hey, I was saving my judgment for the tacos.
So this is how the afternoon played out -- tacos passed around at the top of the hour, 20-30 minutes of eating and judging and then back out to the festival for more tequila-sipping and time-killing. I was full after round two, uncomfortable after round three and ready to shoot myself (and others) by round four. But I persevered until 3:45, when the seafood taco judging was over. Some people stayed on to judge guacamole and "anything goes." My stomach thought better of it.
What kills me about this process is the judging was so anonymous, we'll never really know if our favorite tacos were winners. . Based on the scores below, the brand new Milagro Grill swept the weekend. Owned by Ryan,Jaret, Brynn, Reed and Nana Johnson (members of the Macayo's family), Milagro's secret weapon is surely chef James Fox, who worked under Matt Carter at Zinc Bistro and The Mission.
I, for one, don't think I'll be interested in tacos for at least a month. But get this: festival organizer Dave Tyda was so tired and hungry when he closed down the event Saturday night that he swung into the drive-through at Taco Bell. Is that ironic or just a little sad?
Saturday's and Sunday's money-winners were:
Chicken Taco: 1st: Milagro Grill 2nd: Cien Agaves 3rd: Dos Gringos
Pork Taco: 1st: Milagro Grill 2nd: La Hacienda 3rd: El Palacio Beef Taco: 1st: El Palacio 2nd: Wildhorse Grille 3rd: Milagro Grill
Seafood Taco: 1st: Cottonwood "Taco Pirates" 2nd: La Hacienda 3rd: Sportsman's Wine Bar
Salsa: 1st: El Palacio Cantina 2nd: Macayo's 3rd: Camelback Inn
Guacamole: 1st: El Palacio 2nd: Cottonwood "Taco Pirates" 3rd: Sandbar
Anything Goes: 1st: El Palacio 2nd:Milagro Grill 3rd: Rubio's
Best Booth: 1st: Sandbar 2nd: J-Licious 3rd: Distrito OCTOBER 21
People's Choice: Distrito GRAND CHAMPION: Milagro Grill RESERVE GRAND CHAMPION: El Palacio Cantina
Chicken Taco: 1st: Macayo's 2nd: Distrito 3rd: El Palacio Cantina
Pork Taco: 1st: Distrito 2nd: Milagro Grill 3rd: Macayo's
Beef Taco: 1st: Milagro Grill 2nd: El Palacio Grill 3rd: Macayo's
Seafood Taco: 1st: Four Seasons 2nd: J-Licious 3rd: Milagro Grill
Salsa: 1st: Macayo's 2nd: El Palacio Cantina 3rd: El Hefe Four Seasons Manuel's
Guacamole: 1st: Crudo 2nd:Macayo's 3rd:Cottonwood "Taco Pirates"
Anything Goes: 1st: El Palacio 2nd: Four Seasons 3rd: Cottonwood "Taco Pirates"
Best Booth: 1st: Tonto Bar & Grill 2nd: J-Licious 3rd: Dos Gringos
Don Julio Margarita Challenge Winner: Micah Olson, Bar Crudo
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Don Julio Luxury Drop Contest Winner: Renae Tsukemoto, Sandbar