AZ Taco Fest Planners School Judges in Taco Tasting

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You think judging a taco contest sounds like a lark? Yeah, I thought so, too. But the AZ Taco Fest, held October 20-21 at Salt River Fields gets bigger and better every year (this is its third), and its founders-promoters-and-all-around-grunts Rick Phillips and David Tyda (a.k.a. the Eateraz boyz) want to make sure every aspect of the event is 100 percent legit.

See also: 10 Favorite Tacos Right Now in Greater Phoenix

And to that end, they invited all the new judges to a quick meeting at The Mission in Scottsdale on Wednesday night for a rundown of how judging will be handled. Whew! It sounds like a lot of eating, a lot of dithering, and a lot of work. Get this . . .

There were maybe 15 of us, sitting at a long table on the patio (only new judges showed up for this meeting) -- me at one end with a bucket of iced Tecate at my feet. Already I'm impressed. Tyda stood up and above the din of diners around us, spoke about the National Taco Association that he and Phillips founded, explaining that they took a page from "age-old barbecue contests," which are governed by organizations that certify judges and provide rules to be followed.

In doing so, they provide peace of mind to competitors who know that sanctioned events have 1) serious judges, 2) fair scoring, and 3) an actual prize fund that will be awarded in a timely manner.

We were given the list of rules the competitors must follow, told about the taco categories (chicken, pork, beef and seafood) and told about the prizes: 1st place, $300; 2nd place, $200; 3rd place, $100 + a $1,000 Grand Champion award and a $500 Reserve Champion. Then we got down to the nuts and bolts.

There are 50 entrants in the competition for the entire weekend with judging on Saturday and Sunday. Each contestant must submit six tacos in the approved container provided, a custom-made box with six compartments. Contestants are encouraged to go wild with decorations, garnishes, and presentation, but the box can in no way identify or make reference to the restaurant or team name. This is an anonymous tasting, and judges are not to be influenced by any person, business or restaurant they may know.

Garnishes are good, but sauce in a container is a no-no. It's gotta be served on the taco. Period. End of story.

We're judging 40 percent on presentation, 40 percent on taste and 20 percent on texture, giving a simple numerical rating from 1 to 10.

Now here's the fun part: How do we actually judge? Tyda and Phillips have written an entire page on the subject, beginning with objectivity. The guiding principle is this: judging is not what we like or dislike, remember from childhood or find annoying. Rather, judging is asking ourselves: Is this good, bad, or somewhere in between?

There's a good deal of discussion about the tortilla (a taco's foundation) and even the masa. Then we're reminded that the "shell" could also be lettuce, a crepe or a $20 bill.

Meanwhile, the filling should be judged on quality of product and execution of dish.

"Proteins should be tender and flavorful. Deep flavors that have penetrated the protein are usually the sign of something good. Flavors on top of the protein show less complexity." This is good stuff. They've obviously give this some thought.

Presentation is discussed too, boiling down to this: Does the food look good and do you want to eat it? Tyda adds, "Tricks and gimmicks are fun but should not overshadow the food."

Last of all, they discuss texture. Nothing too goopy or too dry. We're looking for tenderness and crunch and, of course, contrast.

So, you might wonder, who's willing to spend the better part of a day chomping on tacos and chewing on a multitude of fine points? Taco fanatics, that's who, and apparently, Phoenix is full of them.

Tyda and Phillips -- who also promote a barbecue festival each year -- knew they didn't want their event to be the usual schmaltzy small-town deal, judged by the mayor, a radio DJ and a handful of other local personalities. So for their first barbecue festival, they posted a shout-out for judges on Facebook and were instantly flooded with offers from 'cue fanatics, begging to be participants. Most of the judges consider themselves foodies with a particular passion for the particular category.

"There's a whole sub-culture of people who love these categories (barbecue and/or tacos). It's a whole lifestyle," Tyda says. Most of these folks are foodies of one stripe or another but their day jobs might be anything: lawyer, financial banker or cop.

And now, one food writer who understands that tasting 20-some-odd tacos in a day is a very serious undertaking.

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