Unfortunately I had to skip out on being a judge for the annual Salsa, Tequila and Taco Challenge held at the La Encantada shopping thing up yonder in the Foothills, hosted by the always awesome SAACA (Southern Arizona Arts & Cultural Alliance), last year because I am pretty sure the wife and I were out of town. Were we? Pretty sure we were. Or maybe I wasn't invited yet because being the type of food writer that I am, well...writer in general, usually takes a lot of industry folk to relax a bit because they never know what I might say or, heh!, do.
But never fear! My dopey approach to things and sarcasm only comes from a place bound in a general sense used for wanting to take the lighter rail to important destinations. Heck, this is food writing for craps sake. We write about food! Not politics or the glaring terror of world hunger and racism.
"Was that torta to your liking?"
"Mmmm...it was okay. Here's my dissertation on why your avocado crema just didn't work on so many levels. Part one:..."
Ease up people.
Plus this is Tucson. Sure we are the first US city (I seem to mention this in almost every blog these days...wow) of gastronomy but, let's get down to brass Twinkies here: You're eating food then writing about it.
Have fun. Drink the wine. Mingle. Enjoy the fact that you get in events for free and all of your food is usually comped.
How awesome is that?
It's way wicked fxxking awesome!
|Judges getting oriented|
Fortunately this year I was in town and when I got the invite to be a judge I replied back: Oh hellz yeah!
Judging culinary events and competitions is the best. The coordinators make you feel all important and such, the ones competing kind of kiss your ass and best of all...cheap as free food and booze. Personally I got into food blogging because it was fun. Just something rad to do because I loved, and still love!, the food scene here in Tucson. I had no idea how far it would take me. Getting invited to do fancy crap such as plated dinners, high end events and, yes, judging, is a plume in my tattered and non-existent hat. My head is just too big for those things. I'm still fairly new at it, like this my second year being on lists and all that due to the Weekly gig...but still. I'm old enough and have done enough to take it all in stride and appreciate what comes my way.
This competition had tequila though.
I packed up my nice digital camera, Matilda, who has held my photogenic hand since 2014. She's a bit rattly in her middle age but as said in that man love cowboy movie with the Joker, "I wish I could quit you!"
But I can't.
As I drove down Campbell Ave from midtown Tucson, heading towards Skyline Blvd. a few miles up, the clouds thickened and lil drops pattered on the windshield. This was, after all, late monsoon season and we have been fortunate enough to get a good downpour here and there. Mostly here. Ah, it'll pass, I thought to myself. It usually does.
But as I wound my way towards the Foothills, I found myself switching the wipers up from 'now and then' to 'um, better double up on that'. About a mile away from my turn off to get the the mall, or whatever you want to label La Encantada, an outdoor retail spree dotted with Michael Kors and Anthropologies and all types of fxxkery that I would never step foot in except to ask if I could use and destroy their toilet after much hot burn salsa had been ingested on a stomach steeped with tequila, the rain amped itself up to a level where the wipers were on full blown 'we may not make it out of here alive'.
It was coming...down! Thing is, that La Enc...you know what, I'm sick of spelling that place...the mall thing is an outdoor affair. Yes! The Salsa, Tequila & Taco challenge was slated to be as well.
How would this play out?
I was curious too...
|Its so beautiful|
I arrived a bit early before the 5:30pm judges check in, so I walked around the various shops in my vintage Hawaiian shirt and old skateboard shoes and shorts and wondered if any of this splashy price tag fluff was actually worth it? The Foothills area is a far cry from the foibles of regular ol' Tucson. Its sort of like comparing getting an enema from a licensed professional in a clean and comfortable environment to some guy named Terry offering to siphon Mountain Dew up your trumpet in the back of his van for the low low cost of "Just gimme a couple'a smokes".
Kinda like that.
But I far prefer my real Tucson to the unreal environment of the Foothills. Money is cool and all but...how much spray tan and silicone injection does one need to feel worthy? I mean, it's just...
Oh look! 5:30. Time to check in.
|A lot better than the description provides|
There was about a good dozen or so judges, a few of which I knew, and because the event was so big with so many vendors we were fitted into three separate groups. I got group 3, paired with absolutely no one I knew, and our beat was the entire upstairs area of the mall.
Wait. Upstairs? What do you mean by that?
Apparently they wanted us, with some volunteers leading us around to the various tables, to judge outside and not the usual comfy and far less drippy judges room.
I looked outside.
BOOM! went some lightning. Rain sheeting down in torrents. Then they handed us some paper on a clipboard in which to tally our votes.
Paper? In rain?
Luckily I left Matilda in the car because there is no way I was going to get her soaking wet. So the images you see here are the few I took with my phone.
Sorry about it.
|Shimmering beacons of hope|
On the Team 3 beat we had Guadalajara Grill, Cafe a la C'Art, Royal Cafe, Seis Kitchen, Cruz del Sol Tequila, some juice place and then Saffron Indian Bistro (?), among others. Saffron? An upscale Indian restaurant? Um, sure.
Our group made a big circle around the upstairs dodging as much as possible the heavy drops machine-gunning their way down. I tried listening to the chefs or presenters descriptions of what we were about to try but to little or no avail. The pitter patter on the ground and on the umbrellas was just too much for my Metal destroyed ears. So I just nodded, quickly took a bite, and sip, marked down what I thought, like it was 1-5 on taste, originality, presentation, etc, and moved on.
Around this time, 6pm, the VIP crowd was let in. For $100 the general paying public, per person, got to sample all the goods that we did before the plebian $60 ante uppers would be set free at 7pm, stumbling in, then eating and drinking their way to near oblivion.
"I'm not here to eat...I'm here to drink!", announced some middle aged dude that probably hadn't touched his wife in years. The VIPers are a distinct community. They paid the big bucks here and demand that they get the full upper decker treatment. Men in shiny tight shirts with ladies that can hardly balance on heels so thin they approach the invisible. Frosted, angry tipped hair on dissatisfied women that insist on speaking to the manager. Golf bellied men high fiving after shots of silver tequila. Brokers. Real estate swingers. Quaffers of white wine at 11am. They surrounded me. The rain and thimble shots of tequila or Dixie cup sized margaritas did very little to help. The rain did not keep the "event folk" from coming out and making their heavily perfumed selves known. I just buckled down, tallied my votes, turned it in and made my way around the rest of the big spenders and shops filled with glimmering loot I would never understand.
|Gypsy Caravan rules|
To save face I met up with some beer and liquor vendors I had become friends with from my various travails across southern AZ as a food writer. I began to calm down a bit. Outside of just salsa, I actually ate some real tacos which made me feel even more human. But the rain. The rain!
It would ease up enough for dancers to come out and colorfully move about in unison on the main esplanade but then, crash! bang! boom!, more thunder, more lightning followed by more and more rain. I'm sure the organizers were not too happy about the weather outcome.
"Last year it was 110 without a hint of breeze," a buddy told me. "This year we got hit with rain. Hopefully next year they can move us indoors. But...who knows."
SAACA has no say in how the weather will turn out but if they continue to have this competition in late summer, all I know is that the Tucson weather is all but informative and forgiving. It just happens! The rain is always a welcome sight and it is nice to see the washes flowing with water, but for an outdoor culinary event, it is the opposite of 'hey rain, great to see ya!' I was soaked. So was everybody else.
7pm. And the floodgates opened.
What stampeded their way in can only be described as hungry villagers forced behind barriers for days mercilessly teased with the promise of a few scraps of food and the last pours of beer and booze. They looked desperate, savage even. I have never seen so many drunk and wet Caucasians moving towards me in a "Night of the Living Dead" procession, enough where I downed my last margarita with haste, ran to the car and drove back to my safe haven of midtown Tucson.
Once I crossed River Road, the rain stopped. Odd that. Maybe it was the altitude of the Foothills. Maybe it was just a rogue storm making its way past. Or maybe it was the Almighty saying "Please move this amazing event elsewhere next year! Haven't you gotten the hint?"
Either way, thank you SAACA for letting me judge yet another culinary competition of yours. You all do such great work, I just feel bad about the weather situation.
Once I was home, I dried off, cuddled up with the cat and felt really lucky, once again, to be doing what I do. And you should too.
Rain, heat or whatever...Tucson is a mighty fine place to call home.
Camera, Typing and Judging While Wet
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Late Summer Monsoons, 2018