5 Best Things I Ate at the Arizona Taco Festival

Mexico's humble yet esteemed street food, the taco, elicits plenty of passionate discourse in taco-centric cities like Phoenix. There are taco detractors, who sniff at the snack's decidedly unfancy origins and ubiquity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are die-hard taco freaks, who debate the merits of assorted grilling techniques and travel to far-flung taquerías and loncheras in search of the perfect carne asada or al pastor.

It was the latter faction, the taco aficionados (along with their more casual taco-eating brethren) who braved crowds, traffic, and some seriously weird weather this weekend to sample the goods from more than 50 local restaurants and food trucks at the sixth annual Arizona Taco Festival at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.

Yet, despite the excitement and smell of grilled meat in the air, the weekend-long "taco-topia" was not without disappointments. Long lines plagued the festival during our visit on Saturday, most notably the lines to purchase tokens, which were the only way to get your hands on food and drink throughout the festival.

Also disappointing was the lack of variety we encountered as we ate our way around Salt River Fields. Part of the genius of tacos is their simplicity and versatility — a handful of unexpected elements can elevate a ho-hum taco to new heights, or at least move it in surprising directions. But most festival vendors dished out tacos with ultra-traditional Mexican regional fillings and toppings. Carne asada with cilantro and onion is a classic for good reason, but such tacos don't leave much room for interpretation. This means festival goers looking to try something new or unusual were mostly out of luck.

Still, if you consider a simply dressed taco cradled inside a paper boat to be a thing of beauty, there were plenty of exceptionally good bites to be found around the event. Here are some of the tacos that made us want to part with our shiny, silver tokens for one more dose of taco glory.

1. Some of the shortest wait times at the festival were at Hacienda Mexican Grill, and it's a shame more taco-lovers didn't line up for the restaurant's Jalisco-style carnitas tacos. Large hunks of moist, well-browned shredded pork were heaped onto corn tortillas and topped with finely chopped white onion, feathery sprigs of cilantro, and a bright tomatillo salsa. The well-seasoned pork was meltingly soft and stood out as one of the most tender and memorable bites of the weekend.

2. Diego Pops scored big with taco-lovers this weekend, drawing some of the longest lines at the festival with its green chile chicken, pineapple pork, grilled steak, and crispy cod tacos. We loved the pineapple pork taco, the slow-braised, tangy-sweet meat melding beautifully with salty cotija cheese. The house slaw added pleasing herbal notes to the tender, savory meat. Diego Pops was the only stall we found making its own deep-fried crunchy taco shells. The homemade shells, which landed in our paper boats with no trace of oil or grease, added a tasty and gratifying crunch to an already delicious taco.

3. SOL Cocina delighted us with its Vampiro carne asada taco, which beckoned us with its attractive blend of color and textures, including spoonfuls of bright red pico de gallo, green scallions, and a thin drizzle of mildly smoky orange chipotle sauce. The toppings melded harmoniously with the meat, wrapping every bite with rich, savory flavors that flared with medium heat.

4. Blanco Tacos + Tequila's green chile pork taco was a study in how to build a simple yet exceptionally good taco. Start with slow-braised pork simmered in a rich, slightly tangy green chile sauce. Top it with pico de gallo, a dusting of sharp cotija, and fresh slaw. That's it: a beautiful balance of flavors, every bite singing with savory and salty notes.

5. Taqueria Fundador was a festival favorite, and for good reason. The restaurant's flat-top grill was front and center, where it sizzled with huge quantities of chopped steak. We loved the classic carne asada taco, which featured slightly chewy, bubbling pieces of nicely seasoned steak. The two corn tortillas were filled to bursting with the meat and topped with your choice of chopped onions, cilantro, salsas, and pickled carrots. These tacos were so tasty that we could have easily eaten them plain and come away satisfied with the full, unadorned flavor of the slightly charred steak. 

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.