The best medicine for confusion just inside the Arizona Taco Festival gate — confusion with lines, where to pay, and chip reader malfunctioning — was grill smoke. A poleaxing smoke of meat and steel blowing from the far, three-sided rectangle of vendor tents. Grill smoke invading your open nostrils as victorious lucha libre wrestlers beat the mat, as cheers burst like the yellow shells of fried tortillas.
Grill smoke making your racing mind race faster. Grill smoke as you clutched a frosty margarita, saw the near-but-far McDowell Mountains, and felt your hunger opening.
This past weekend, the 10th Arizona Taco Festival went down at WestWorld in north Scottsdale. The festival's 2019 move from Salt River Fields was driven by the need for more space for taco-centric and taco-adjacent events.
A chile-eating contest. A tequila enclave. One tent filled with hot sauces. Another where festival-goers built rainbow elotes.
On Saturday, the first day of the festival’s two, the crowds came early. Hard sun drove at the pavement. We were all hungrily bottlenecked at the entrance. Once you got in, there was far-spread grass and a sea of taco vendors, almost a mirage but for that husky smoke.
We live in a great part of the world for eating tacos. The Arizona Taco Festival begins from this premise, uniting more than 50 taco vendors, and then injects a dose of surrealism and hysteria. The result is an event that sees a large slice of the taco scene in slight caricature, in a bit of cartoon, the zany elements of taco culture centered and celebrated. Though tacos have a long history and deep cultural importance, they are treated with a strange, light virality in our current popular culture. These two forces are often at odds.
I question whether the festival should be blowing up the pop element of tacos like a balloon dog. Not once in three hours, 10-plus tacos, two trips to the tequila tent, several circuits of the rectangle, and many conversations with strangers did one single word about the cultural significance or history of tacos come up. There weren’t any spaces within the festival where you could read about foodways, regions, or styles; there was nowhere to learn about them from a speaker.
But there were taco seesaws, Instagram-ready backdrops, and even people dressed as tacos. In today’s age of food culture, this is what draws crowds. And people came in droves to the new north Scottsdale festival, where, if you charted a strategic course, the tacos were better than expected.
Grill smoke drifted thickly from many of the tents run by the more quietly great, traditional taquerias.
In back of Taqueria Mi Lindo Guanajuato’s kitchen-in-the-field, fragrant clouds caught the sun and twisted away from where cooks, at least three, scraped carne asada and pork onto toasted flour tortillas. This vendor was one of the few that utilized a chilled salsa counter, spooning a fiery but refreshing black-red salsa on a solid al pastor.
Looking back through the cilantro showers and lime mistings, another vendor that stood out was Sr. Ozzy’s Tacos y Mariscos. Up from south Phoenix, the folks at this long-lined stand were plating hot, folded-over corn tortillas deeply griddled, the half-moons showing their ample fillings in lumpy outline. A shrimp taco oozed melted cheese and crema. It might have been the most purely comforting taco of the day.
Each taco was about $3. Some of the 50-plus vendors served more than three kinds of tacos. Some tacos were old-school through and through: carne asada on a flour tortilla, no flourishes in sight, for the family recipe has none. Even the newer taco spots kept food more classic — something at odds with the festival’s candy-colored rainbow elotes.
Over at Taco Chelo, meat was being stripped from a cattle skull, horns jutting. Once tucked into a corn tortilla, the beef head barbacoa had a slight mineral tone. It disappeared with a lush creaminess softer than even the tortilla. Natural head fat. Long cooking. An epic spread of salsas, the green introducing a zinging counterpoint. This is the kind of taco you go to a taco festival to enjoy.
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My second favorite bite of the day was a mushroom and huitlacoche taco from La Señora, the restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale’s The Saguaro Hotel. Though this stand plated the best al pastor I tried on the day — heaped with tender, deeply orange-red pork and pineapple — the vegetarian option was even better. Its slippery bites of chopped mushroom swam in a creamy, deeply perfumed, darkly corn-fungus-tinted sauce. Microstrings of fried onion laced the top. A thick, coarse corn tortilla. Hot magic.
And the best taco I had? It was a pork taco from Vecina.
The newly opened restaurant’s meat burst with juice, sung with flavor, paling the next three or four tacos I ate after. A few magenta slopes of pickled onion and thin jalapeno rounds garnished the top, layering in acidity and heat. Both were used judiciously, just like the dusting of cheese and cool smear of avocado-based salsa. It all came into alignment, like a constellation, one of pink and pale green and burnished meat on a slightly orange tortilla, the brightest offering on a day nicely filled with them.