Summer is the time for food and drink festivals here in Tucson. It's slightly slower for local businesses, especially bars and restaurants, so why not showcase their talent before the students and snowbirds return and make things across town hectic again?
Why not indeed!
And one of the best comes at summer's end with the annual Salsa, Tequila and Taco Challenge held at the La Encantada mall.
So much fun.
And yet....slightly hectic.
|They weren't kidding...really spicy|
For the past two or three challenges, the good folks of SAACA, who put on the amazing annual event, have asked me to step in as one of the judges, which has always been an honor. Like every other year, I got the email inviting me with the tag line "please hit reply all" to make sure the others on the list know I am game to eat, drink and voice my opinion with pad and pen.
Well, it didn't go as easy as it could have.
What I did was just hit "reply" so only one person knew that I was ready to do my duty as judge. The others? They had no clue. So a day or two before the event I emailed the guy who sent the initial email asking about my call time, check in and all that. He kindly sent back a "Oh, the actual contacts who were CC'd didn't get your response so we had to quickly fill your spot."
Ah ha. One (hopeful) last foible on my part before summer draws to a close.
Oh...oh I will continue to make many many more mistakes such as that; its what I do. But the way this year has unfolded for me I was hoping that I could reconcile just once with a duty that would make me feel needed and slightly cool.
That I am still working on.
|Let's give 'em something to taco 'bout|
But let's be honest here: I have absolutely nothing to complain about.
I still got VIP press tickets, I still got to participate and I still got to eat and drink some of the best our fair city has to offer. That is within the taco, salsa and tequila realm.
When I arrived a little after 6pm, the hour VIPs get in as general admission was at 7, I immediately headed to the Rigo's Restaurant table for some tequila jello shots, a shot of Arriba tequila and then to sample their traditional and guacamole salsa. What a way to start the evening!
The crowd was fairly thin at this point but up above the clouds were growing thick.
That was of no surprise as every year, tradition pending, the Salsa, Tequila and Taco Challenge gets rained on. Two years ago, as were were judging, the monsoon hit so hard that any and all tables out in the open had to be immediately moved either indoors or at least under some form of La Encantada protection of shade or walkway. But, so far, we were looking mildly dry.
Except for the beer and tequila of course.
|Signed and it delivered|
At 7pm is when things really started to kick off. The passageways and courtyards of the mall began to get, well, mauled by general admission ticket holders. Let the festivities begin!
Lines began to form, the salsa band on the main stage revved up their high energy music, dancers swayed through the hungry and thirsty crowd, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria!
Now we have a party going on.
|Pulled pork taco, in repose|
The sky zipped open and down came heavy drops of late summer rain. But it didn't matter! Even in the slightest. People danced, people ate, people drank, not one spirit was dampened by the dampness.
We chomped down on al pastor tacos from Cafe Botanica, slurped rhubiscus margaritas from Queen Ceviche, ate guava and napolitos salsa from Crossroads Restaurant and drank beer courtesy of Four Peaks, Sierra Nevada and Dos XX. Nobody cared that it was raining. The chefs and hosts were laughing and having fun in spite of it. Kids splashed in the puddles. Heck, I even splashed in a puddle (most likely after sampling all 3 tequilas from Roger Clyne's Mexican Moonshine)!
And just as quickly as rain started, it stopped.
That's when the humidity kicked in. The glass walls and doorways of the retail shops began to fog up, including my own glasses. But then when the breeze fell over the event, we were all hit with a very unexpected cool down factor. A very welcome feeling in late summer Tucson.
And that's when things began to heat up.
|Even salsa drummers like to thrash now and then|
People gathered to eat tacos and drink margaritas from Casino del Sol, Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain, Quail Creek Country Club, Westward Look and the Lodge at Ventana Canyon.
Proof Artisanal Pizza and Pasta had this Italian inspired salsa that was really interesting. The YWCA made a "Dragon's Breath" salsa infused with Thai ingredients, and, whoa, it really did make your mouth light up. El Coronado had a house salsa along with a salsa verde and both were exquisite. And I was really impressed with the students at Pima Community College Hospitality, who offered up two different styles of salsa along with this delicious "tacos ahogados", which were crispy flautas drowning in a tangy green sauce. Way to go future chefs!
Everyone that was in attendance had a lanyard with a people's choice voting tablet attached. Sure the main judging was over, but now it was time for the public to speak up.
Just like last time, I had some serious difficulty deciding who should get the praise and prize. But, you know, this year I'm just going to relax and enjoy myself. Let someone else make the final chop deliberation.
So slightly soaked, full and heady, I made my way out of La Encantada and drove back home watching one of the best lightning storms to date. What a night.
Next year I will remember to hit 'reply all'. That is if I get the invite to be a judge.
Yet just being a part of the whole Salsa, Tequila and Taco Challenge was an honor.
It always is.
|Lots of tequila, lots of beer, lots of food, lots of fun|
So cheers SAACA (Southern Arizona Arts and Culture Association) for another successful event. And thank you, as always, for inviting me. It is always a pleasure. You kids rule!
And congrats to those who participated, those who showed up and braved the rain and for those who won.
I didn't stick around to see who actually took the trophy for each category. I didn't have to.
In my personal judgement...they all won.
|So many happy faces|
Camera, Typing and Not Judging (This Year!)
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Missing the Rains Down at La Encantada, 2019