Is It Chile in Here? Judging the Roosevelt Row Chile Pepper Festival

I love chili, chile peppers, and anything “picante.” But my threshold for oral pain has never been high, and I have a history of sobbing in Thai restaurants. Coming from the Northeast, a bland palate is par for the course. You don’t have to brace yourself for maple syrup and cheese. Eating in the Southwest demands some cojones, especially at a festival that celebrates chile peppers — the primary ingredient in pepper spray, and the cause of innumerable seizures.

Which is why I was a little hesitant about my role last weekend as a judge in Roosevelt Row's Chile Pepper festival. 

Thousands of people crowded into Phoenix Public Market’s parking lot in downtown Phoenix Saturday evening. Long lines extended from every kiosk, and spicy odors wafted through the air.

For the past four years, the festival has been organized by the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, and the list of participants is extensive: There was pepper roasting, vendors’ stalls, and live mariachi, flamenco, and mambo music.

The competition alone drew a host of restaurateurs, most of them supra-local favorites like Jobot, Paz Cantina, Welcome Diner, and Carly’s Bistro. The competition is all in good fun, sort of like winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. But everyone really does want to win.

Despite years of writing about chefs and restaurants, I’d never had the chance to introduce myself as a “celebrity judge.” The volunteers led me into a special room, where several tables had been set up. The judging was delayed for about an hour and a half, which gave me to a chance to mill around the festival. Unfortunately, the delay meant that two of the restaurateurs ran out of food and couldn’t participate. I wasn’t surprised – the queues stretched across the parking lot. The chile samples were selling like hotcakes. So to speak.

There is a part of me that has always wondered how many tacos I could actually eat in a single sitting. It’s one of those middle-school questions you never think to actually test. Yet as a dozen samples were laid out in front of me on the foldout tables, I started to reconsider this curiosity. They weren’t just tacos; there were doughnuts and desserts, creamy drinks, and one entire stuffed pepper. Samples ran the gamut of cheeses, pastries, and meat. There were tortillas of various sizes and even a cake pop. The range was astonishing, and the only thing they had in common was that single essential ingredient – the chile pepper.

The task was strange: Few of these foods fit into the same category, and the scope of aromas and tastes meant that no two items could be judged on the same scale. Instead, I imagined what the chef was trying to accomplish. I might never order these dishes in a restaurant, but I could appreciate how the chefs had crafted their masterpieces. If it seemed successful, high marks. If it was seemed less inspired, lower marks. There is no way to describe just how subjective this process is.

“Man, you’re glowing,” one of the other judges exclaimed.

I laughed through a mouthful of chorizo. “This is normal,” I said, wiping sweat from my forehead. “This is me when it’s negative ten.”

To my relief, none of the samples were unbearably hot, and most of them were pretty tame. This was a good thing, overall – the only refreshment was bottled water, which isn’t very effective against spice. I had seen enough Man vs. Food to imagine bursting blood vessels, heart palpitations, or endless hiccups. Everyone has seen those hot sauces that come with warning labels and waivers. None of the festival’s samples even approached that level of severity. If anything, I was hoping for a little more kick.

We handed in our scores without fanfare. Most of the judges were groaning, including me. We were bloated with food, but deeply satisfied. I stifled the temptation to glance at their clipboards, as much as I wanted to compare notes. Some items scored higher than others, but everything had been delicious. There was nothing I wouldn’t happily devour a second time – after a few days, once I’d digested those thousands of calories.

In the end, the winner was Otro Café, the Latin fusion restaurant on Bethany Road, for its pork chile verde with cilantro, lime, jack cheese and homemade cornbread. Meanwhile, the People’s Choice Award went to St. Francis, the farm-to-table eatery on East Camelback, carne asada and veggie tacos with chile de arbol salsa, cilantro, and onions.

I waddled home, distended and happy. Like cacti and Hopi masks, the chile pepper is emblematic of the Southwest, and it’s an honor to assess its uses. Better still, I was astonished to see how many ways this one little fruit could be cooked. Plenty of ingredients will come and go, but the chile pepper will always be hot.
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Robert Isenberg