October's Arizona Taco Festival Is Going to Be Bigger and Weirder

Goodbye Salt River Fields, hello WestWorld.
Goodbye Salt River Fields, hello WestWorld. Arizona Taco Festival
With the incendiary days of summer in the rear view, the fall festival season has arrived. Whether or not you're somebody who double-circles the Arizona Taco Festival on your calendar, you may want to give the mid-October event, one of the cornerstones of the fall festival run, some thought this year.

In less than two weeks, the 10th annual festival will kick off. Your window for enjoying $3 tacos from vendors across the Valley will fly open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., on both October 12 and 13. For its first double-digit anniversary, the festival has been dreamed to be bigger, spicier, and weirder.

The key to the latest incarnation of the festival is that the sunburned lines of Salt River Fields will be history. The festival has traded its old digs for WestWorld — the giant, 300,000-square-foot north Scottsdale venue brimming with indoor-outdoor potential.

“WestWorld offers us some logistical opportunities that we didn’t have before in Salt River Fields,” organizer Rick Phillips says. “It will be better because of the venue, the shape of it, and the flow.”

This year, your flow from taco to taco to taco to taco might even have a few non-taco detours.

For one, lucha libre wrestlers will be squaring off not in an open field but in a ring with stadium seating. “Let’s get this giant tent,” Phillips says, tracing the thinking that led to the upgrade. “We’ll also have bleacher seating to create an arena. And we’ll also have 80 feet of bar in there. And when the wrestlers aren’t wrestling, we’ll have bands and DJs. We’re going to turn it into the heartbeat, the epicenter of crazy for the event.”

This gathering place — just one of the festival’s many — aims to have a vibe, Phillips says, “like a Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez movie set — the feeling of, ‘Where am I? I’m not in Phoenix anymore.’”

click to enlarge Hamburger fry bread from Grandma's Navajo Fry Bread. - MELISSA FOSSUM
Hamburger fry bread from Grandma's Navajo Fry Bread.
Melissa Fossum
In our hub of wood-grilled carne asada tacos, Korean fried chicken tacos, drowned tacos, buche tacos, fry bread tacos, and tortillas flat and folded in a beautiful profusion of forms, this year’s Arizona Taco Festival looks to be worth a trip to north Scottsdale and some prime Saturday or Sunday stomach real estate. In addition to an expanded roster of events, the new venue’s 300-acre-plus “taco playground” will host, Phillips says, “more restaurants than we’ve ever had in the past.”

There should be more than 50, all competing for $10,000 in prize money. Tickets will cost you far less: $15 per general admission ticket, plus $3 per taco with no limits but your own.

The early lineup of participating restaurants winds into barbecue and mariscos and all over the taco map; a few of the most promising entrants include Taco Chelo, Vecina, and Emerson Frybread. (In the front of my mind, with little effort, I can still taste the hot-and-chewy beef taco I downed from Emerson at this event two years ago.)

Some of the events look pretty wild.

New this year, there will be a hot sauce tent orchestrated by Vic Clinco, compiler of the largest hot sauce collection in the U.S. This notorious heat seeker will be curating a roster of hot sauce brands that will be available for sampling, sauces ranging from local standouts like Big Reds to national leaders like CaJohns. Access to the tent will run you $10.

click to enlarge Taco assembly will be going down en masse at this year's Arizona Taco Festival. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Taco assembly will be going down en masse at this year's Arizona Taco Festival.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
This year, Phillips and the festival will be taking the standard chef’s cooking demo and “turning it on its ear.” A souped-up, interactive cooking demo will see festival attendees at long farm tables, Phillips says, “cooking rainbow churros, wacky elotes” rather than idly watching professionals instruct through culinary maneuvers.

There will still be the tent with a triple-digit number of tequilas — but also mezcal, sotol, and bacanora.

There will be a taco-eating contest, a spectacle of attendees eating super-hot peppers like the Carolina Reaper,  a $150 VIP option that scores you access to a highfalutin cantina, and a costumed Chihuahua beauty pageant. There will even be a couple getting married front and center on a Taco Festival stage, in a Saturday ceremony themed after the Day of the Dead.

And there will be us, there, covering the event. We wouldn’t miss something so taco-centric and strange. Stay tuned for an on-the-ground report. 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy