I almost didn't make it to this event.
The night of the SAACA Tucson 23 at the JP Marriott Starr Pass resort just happened to be in the center of the monsoon storm deluge. When I began the long-ish drive out there around 4:30, in order to make the 5pm press check in, there was but a spatter of rain.
But around 4:45, when I was about halfway there, swerving on Anklam Road and bobbing up and down on Greasewood, that's when the skies opened and nearly sent me floating away.
My current ride is a Hyundai Accent, a little white bubble car that almost became a tub toy with the heavy downpour. At one point, the chubby drops mixed with hail (hail!) and shoving winds temporarily blinded me and had me looking for a pullover spot.
But, just as fast as it came on, it sputtered out. The manic swiping of the windshield wipers went from a sloshing noise to an annoying squeek due to the 100 degree weather immediately drying off the car and road.
So there it was; a sign. The food gods weren't done with me yet. Although for like two minutes I thought I was a goner. That car becomes a four wheel flotation device on rain slicked streets and in the shallow pools of road dips.
But its good on gas and so far the car thieves seem to enjoy passing it up.
When I got to the resort I was informed to park my car and board a shuttle, one that would be taking me to the event.
Oh man, I thought. What if I want to duck out early? What if there is an emergency and I need to get back to my part of town in a jiffy? Am I to understand that I am at the whim of some shuttle service, like one that runs every hour on the hour? I'm trapped! I feel suffocated already! I...
"Sir, there will be a shuttle available at all times during the event," informed the nice lady taking head count inside the long bus.
Oh. Okay. Nevermind then.
On we go!
|Shuttle me to food victory!|
It was a lovely drive from the parking area to the Tucson 23 as the shuttle traversed a slim curvy trail up, giving us a view of the post rain held desert landscape. Once we all arrived, we were informed to wait until about 5:30 to present your ticket and then wait another 30 minutes before the doors opened.
When I told someone I was with the press I was instructed to go down to the main lobby, get a press badge seeing as we the lucky freeloaders of the Tucson food press get in early. Ha ha! Take that 'normal folk'!
Of course those that can afford to attend soirees such as this most likely make a lot more money a year than I do. So...yeah.
But still! A half hour to roam the various tables and sample the various vittles and quaffables before the hungry horde come stampeding?
|Dancers warming up before the event|
The sprawling and semi-Overlook Hotel looking ballroom was dotted with chefs, bartenders, assistants, event planners and general culinary workers gearing up for the few hours ahead of them. Final prep work was taking place, health inspectors were giving out temporary permits, bottles were getting last minute polishes and food samples were being plated and lined up.
In a strange way I felt sort of bad for coming up to a table and asking for a bite.
When I took my first plate from chef Maria of Boca Tacos, my guilt easily melted away. Her roasted beet taco with pickled vegetables was outstanding, a perfect and warm way to start off a fun evening.
|Chef Maria and pal are all smiles|
After having an initial bite I really wanted to sample some drinkables. Luckily there were a good amount of local breweries and distilleries to offer up some refreshing refreshments.
First up was some seasonal deliciousness from Barrio Brewing. After a long day of driving and surviving the monsoon a cool brew or two was well in order.
Sierra Nevada had a good heap of sudsy wonder which helped tone down my anxiousness a bit.
20 minutes till the general public are set loose inside.
I have some work to do.
|Swag, swag and more swag|
Usurping tacos, tamales and ceviches, I ran to Oasis Fruit Cones to try one of their raspados. This was a great idea on my end.
Fresh summer fruit was paired with crushed ice and vanilla ice cream. Wow. It was hot outside but I was seriously cool on the inside.
Then I headed to the La Estrella Bakery table to sample a bit of, well...everything.
They had mini versions of their orejas, coyotas, envueltos, pan fino and their signature banderas. Now that I had some sugar in me, which was starting to rev me up, it was time to slow down by sampling some home distilled amazingness from Three Wells Distillery.
A few sips of their Sonora Silver and Sonora Copper spirits, derived from the prickly pear fruits, warmed me back up.
Which was good because I was just getting warmed up.
10 minutes till the flood gates open.
|Refreshing and delicious|
Now to get serious here!
Seis Kitchen had their chicken tinga tacos on hand. Thats right they did!
Reforma brought their al pastor tacos with pineapple, onion and pastor adobo on handmade corn tortillas. Word!
Cocteleria La Palma served fish and shrimp tacos finished with a tangy house "special" sauce. Fantastico!
Tacos, tacos, tacos!
Was I getting taco'd out?
No way man.
We still have 7 minutes left!
|Spicy micheladas going down|
I was delighted by the snappy flavors brought by Tequila Factory in the Casino del Sol. They made a Yaqui Easter shrimp ceviche with tomatoes, cilantro and hot sauce. Really good.
Then I slurped some vegetarian aguachile from Gringos fixed with jicama, corn, cucumber and cabbage. Wow. A perfect dish for the summer heat.
The Pima Community College Hospitality program brought a variety of empanadas, such as savory pulled pork, drunken peach and pineapple, chocolate cajeta and a cinnamon sugar chipotle, black bean, sweet potato with an avocado cilantro crema.
Holy schnikes! Three minutes!
So much left to eat...and drink!
|Some of the best conchas and empanadas in town|
To wrap things up I hit up Rollie's for a chile citrus pork tamale before heading over to Percheron Mexican Grill for a hearty bacon wrapped burrito bite.
El Cisne offered cotija and queso fresco stuffed chile while Crossroads had chicken, beef, and nopales in red sauce fajitas.
What else? What else?
Oh, there's chef Gary Hickey from Charro Steak!
What are you serving? Nutella tamales with pecans, chocolate drizzle and whipped cream?
Whoa. This is delicious. It's really....
And that's when the house lights dimmed.
|You just can't go wrong with Rollie's|
I was standing next to one of the heavy doors and I watched them slowly open. The now slightly darker arena was basked in late afternoon sunlight which was quickly shadowed by those that have been waiting to get inside for over an hour.
"Here they come!", somebody yelled. A more prophetic observation had yet to be uttered.
A mariachi band blared from the stage, floor staff began moving at an excited pace and the eyes of those about to deal with constant lines grew wide once they got sight of the oncoming barrage.
Personally, I have a weird problem with big crowds. Perhaps its the only child still in me but when I witnessed the ballroom quickly tsunami with eager villagers, I kinda forgot I was to meet some friends here due to an immediate feeling to flee.
One more though!
In the back was a set up for local musician Roger Clyne and his line of tequila. Each shot came with a small taste pairing. The Silver met with salted mango. Okay. Yes. The Raspado with sharp aged cheddar cheese. Hmm. I like what you're doing here. And the Anejo, which had a great heat and kick, was coupled with dark chocolate and orange peel. Huh. Very nice indeed.
That's when I got sandwiched between people that have been drinking since noon. So I thanked everybody in the general sense and found my way out.
|Is this...Windex? Whatever I'll take two|
As promised earlier there was a shuttle waiting and seeing as the event (officially) started, I was the only one needing a ride back to the parking lot.
Thankfully the drive home was dry and easy because I was near blind from food and libations. Don't worry! I wasn't drunk. Not even close. Trust me, I'm a professional. Plus I was too packed in with delicious Mexican inspired food from the greatest stretch of restaurants in southern Arizona to acquire any real effects.
Just loose. Which was good.
Once home I just sat there feeling amazing, appreciated and above all lucky to have been not only invited to such an event, but a part of it.
So thank you SAACA, especially Gretchen Harper, for giving me the VIP treatment for the night.
But apologies for those that I promised I'd meet there.
What can I say? In a half hour I had touched, traversed and tasted all that I could.
Like I said....I'm a professional.
|Cool, crisp and delicious aguachile as far as the eye can see|
A big Homeskillet thank you to all the chefs and participants for this years Tucson 23.
Your hard work is appreciated. Hope to see you next year.
|Chef Gary putting the nut in Nutella tamale|
Camera, Typing and Much Eating and Drinking
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Braving the Monsoons, 2018