Downtown Phoenix

Q&A: Talking tacos with food festival host David Tyda

Taco Fest PHX, a new food festival from event producer David Tyda, will serve tequila and tacos and bring a block-party vibe to downtown Phoenix.
Taco Fest PHX, a new food festival from event producer David Tyda, will serve tequila and tacos and bring a block-party vibe to downtown Phoenix. Debby Wolvos
David Tyda’s love affair with tacos and tequila is well-documented, from his role in co-founding Arizona Taco Festival to launching Barcoa Agaveria. Phoenix New Times named the downtown "back-alley cantina" the Best New Bar of 2022 for slinging plenty of margaritas, highlighting a range of agave spirits, and keeping a solid rotation of food trucks.

Adding to that affinity, the former magazine editor turned food festival producer and bar co-owner is bringing a new taco and tequila festival to downtown Phoenix.

The new festival comes four years after Tyda's split from the original Arizona Taco Festival, a huge carnival-like event over two days.

Tyda's new festival, however, is decidedly different. His goal is to make the inaugural Taco Fest PHX, happening on May 20, an intimate affair.

Tyda is no stranger to hosting events and has previously highlighted pizza, doughnuts and french fries, among others. And while this fest's name points to tacos as the focus, it’s as much about the agave.

Distillers and brewers will have bars throughout the festival corridor — serving margaritas, tequila flights and beers — alongside taquerias and retailers. Tickets cost $40 and cover drinks (there is also a $15 designated driver option), and tacos are extra. The New Times caught up with Tyda to talk tacos, food fests and the bar business.

Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Barcoa Agaveria's basement bar has a moody, boozy vibe.
Allison Young

You’ve done so many different food festivals. What is it about street tacos that you love, and what sparked Taco Fest PHX?

I co-created the Arizona Taco Festival … back in 2010, and I split with them in 2019. We grew that event to about 40,000 people, and I had a non-compete. I got kind of depressed because I lost my connection to tacos. But then I opened Barcoa and realized it wasn't tacos that I was missing, it was my connection to Mexican culture. Barcoa fulfilled that spiritually for me.

[My food festival business partner Lisa Duffield] and I were just talking about … what is something that doesn't exist? I've been meditating on how, when you go to festivals, everything there is on a large scale. Like the main stage, it's over there. The tequila tent is over there. Everything is ‘over there’ at large-scale [events].

When I’m in Guadalajara and I walk out of the lucha libre coliseum, you walk into a full-street block party. The taco makers are right there, the mercado vendors are right there, the people playing music, everything is at eye level and arm’s length.

I want to recreate that in the streets of downtown Phoenix and keep it – I don't think it's my place to use the word authentic – but to make it feel real, like it's got this kind of raw quality to it, like it just popped up out of thin air in the streets.

Usually, we do a bar, but in this case, because we want to highlight the agave spirits brands, each brand will be a bar unto itself. They'll only serve what they have and that will be interspersed with the tacos along with mercado vendors. It’s like, as you're walking, you're discovering these different things as you go through the two city blocks.

We wanted to be in the streets, we wanted to be 21 and over, and we wanted to be at night. May nights are wonderful because it's hot as hell during the day but then it cools off. It's still hot in that kind of cool, sexy, I want a margarita or a cold beer and eat tacos on the street kind of weather.

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The original Arizona Taco Festival was a carnival-like event with entertainment such as lucha libre wrestling.
Arizona Taco Festival

Had you planned to revisit taco festivals after your non-compete ended?

I let the universe guide me. I know that sounds cliched, but when I opened the bar, I didn't seek to be a bar owner, it just happened.

Lisa and I didn't have this grand plan for throwing a taco festival now. We were gonna throw the [Fried, a French Fry & Music Festival] in April but the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department that oversees Hance Park told us the grass most likely wouldn't be tenable. They were worried that the grass wasn't gonna hold up after the Super Bowl, so they told us we were gonna have to move to the streets.

We said, that's not the same festival. We're not interested in reinventing it; we'd rather take a year off. The vibe at [Fried] is, you get a beer, you get some french fries, you plop down on the grass, and you sit in front of the main stage. So moving it to the street would be a different event.

We thought, well, if we're gonna throw something in the street, let's do tacos. With the cancellation of that just felt like the universe saying you're throwing a taco festival in the streets. This May date kind of works because … it's a bit of a last hurrah before summer.

It's truly just us listening to the universe and doing what feels good.

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Sabor a Mi will serve tacos at Taco Fest PHX.
Sabor a Mi

Will people who attend the festival see some of the food trucks that they've seen at Barcoa?

Yeah, for sure. Random AF Taqueria comes to mind. He comes to Barcoa quite a bit. He'll be at the festival. Sabor a Mi, they’ll be at the festival. They tend to only do special events at Barcoa. When they pop up at Barcoa it's a treat.

Do you have a go-to taqueria or taco order?

I can't answer that. Whatever taco’s in front of me, that’s my favorite taco.

There are so many variables when you're planning a food festival. What's one thing that you're always thinking about on the day of?

I'm always thinking about striking that balance where my vendor participants are happy that there's a lot of attendees, so they're doing really well financially and I'm supporting that local business, but I'm also thinking about my attendees. I don't like to see them waiting in lines that are so long that makes their experience not pleasant.

I've been throwing food festivals for like a dozen years now. I don't golf but it's what I imagine the perfect golf swing to feel like, when you can strike that balance where your vendors walk away going, "that was amazing, I had a great day," and your attendees walk away going, "that was amazing, I had a great day."

It's rare that those two things can happen simultaneously, but that is my goal with every festival.

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Pizza fanatics unite at Phoenix Pizza Festival.

It sounds like you're cultivating something more intimate at Taco Fest PHX.

Yeah, exactly. With the number of vendors that we have room for, which is 12 to 15 taco vendors, that's enough food for 2,500 people, so this event will sell out at 2,500 people. I won't sell a single ticket above that because beyond that it crushes the vendors and makes the lines way too long. That's just the way the math works out. I've been working on that for many years, trying to get that math down.

After a big festival do you have any sort of post-festival routine to unwind or regroup?

I think other festival producers will tell you the adrenaline still goes for a couple days after the event, so you crash like a week later — it's not immediate. I don't know, I guess move on and start planning the next one.

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Tequila Corrido delivered its tequila during the pandemic. The spirits maker will have its mobile bar, Selena, on hand at Taco Fest PHX.
Tequila Corrido

Has the bar business taught you anything about putting on festivals or vice versa?

Sometimes it feels like I throw a festival every day now, because Barcoa is very event-driven. Because we're agave spirits and we have a story to tell … our bartenders are always talking about the cultural heritage behind these spirits, and we want to share those stories and contribute to that culture. It's not just making drinks, so we program a lot of events like agave spirits tastings or band appearances or classes.

One thing that I think is a product of the bar for Taco Fest is this agave spirits focus. There's going to be a lot of great brands at the festival that I now have relationships with [like Tequila Corrido].

One of the owners, Brian Raab helped plan our first tequila expo at [Arizona Taco Festival] in 2010, and now he has a tequila brand and it will be at [Taco Fest PHX]. The brand was created by Brad Hoover.

[Corrido had a] VW bus that has a bar in it called Selena. I drove that bus in a promo video for the very first [Arizona Taco Festival]. When Brad passed away, that bus was lost and his niece found it in an ad online and bought the bus. Now Corrido has it and it will be at Taco Fest.

It's just one of those cool, full-circle moments. I hope that people can feel that energy.
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Friends all gathered for their mutual love of doughnuts.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Are there other foods that you'd like to highlight in a festival format in the future?

This is it for a while. Taco Fest was a product of the cancellation of [Fried]. Lisa and I are kind of treating this as a bit of a preview party for what we want to build for years to come. I'd like this event to grow slowly … so no new foods, please.

We're just gonna focus on growing tacos, making sure [Phoenix Pizza Festival is] great and [Fried] comes back. And, doughnuts, I'm just, I'm getting old. I can't eat like that.

Taco Fest PHX

Saturday, May 20 from 6-11 p.m.
Downtown Phoenix, at the corner of First and Moreland streets
$15-40; 21-plus event

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Sara Crocker is a food writer for Phoenix New Times. She has called Phoenix home since 2020, getting to know the Valley through every restaurant, brewery and bar she can. Her work has also appeared in Phoenix Magazine, Phoenix Home & Garden and The Denver Post.
Contact: Sara Crocker

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