Writer Shannon Severson

Photography Courtesy of The Arizona Taco Festival

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]assion. Competition. Discovery. Tacos!

The Arizona Taco Festival is celebrating its 10th “Taco-versary” with creative new festivities and a new, larger location. For the first time, WestWorld of Scottsdale’s 300-acre expanse will be home to the “taco playground” for an expected 30,000 to 40,000 taco lovers over the course of the weekend, Oct. 12–13. 

Taco competitors will vie for the coveted multiple awards, including the grand champion trophy and $10,000 in prize money, along with major bragging rights.

The event has burst from its weekend confines to spur a slew of lead-up events, including free chef demonstrations at Williams-Sonoma at Biltmore Fashion Park, the last of which will be Oct. 3 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. with Chef Richard Hinojosa, co-founder and executive chef of CRUjiente Tacos.

“We give traditional street tacos a new look with a refined approach, and introduce flavors and techniques from around the world,” says Hinojosa of his taco philosophy. 

“I want to reinterpret tacos in a modern and unique way while keeping the integrity of what a taco is. Each taco has it’s own identity and is delicately plated with well-sourced ingredients, balanced flavors and textures.”

Suny Santana of Taco Chelo created Rajas con Crema, a summer vegetable taco inspired by his mother’s recipe for his demonstration. He will also compete at the festival.

“I’m really excited,” says Santana. “I’ve helped others compete in the past. Now that we have our own taqueria, I knew we had to go compete at the Taco Festival.”

The week preceding the festival is brimming like an overstuffed taco with fabulous events. For example, celebrity chef Beau MacMillan of Sanctuary on Camelback will host the Extreme Taco & Margarita Throwdown at Hotel Valley Ho Oct. 7. There will be a $5 suggested donation to benefit the Epilepsy Foundation.

“The concept seemed easy when we have so many great chefs in the Valley and so many great craft cocktail guys and gals,” says MacMillan. “Why not bring them all together and let them put their culinary prowess to the test in the shape of and form of a taco/margarita? This is where the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, and I am ready to eat and drink!”

At another event, the Valley’s top mixologists will compete in Margarita Wars at the Merc Bar, judged by famed master mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim. More events are in the works for the week.

Believe it or not, this first-in-the-nation taco festival and competition has its roots in BBQ. Founder Rick Phillips is a native New Yorker who has a background in the food world and in the publishing industry as the originator Desert Living and Item magazines and EaterAZ food blog. He created Arizona’s first barbecue festival in Old Town Scottsdale.

“Afterward, I couldn’t wait another year to host a festival. What else could we do? Tacos were the obvious choice.”

Without pause, he began planning the first experiential taco competition.

“It was a party,” says Phillips. “Taco people are a different crowd from the serious business of BBQ. They want to eat tacos and drink margaritas. We are still serious about the competition though, and have a lot of rules in place to keep the integrity of the contest. We want to be the Wimbledon of taco events.”

After two years in Old Town Scottsdale, Phillips moved the festival to Salt River Fields. This year’s taco playground will debut at the much larger 300-acre Westworld complex.

“I think people are going to see a lot of thoughtfulness in this year’s event,” says Phillips. “We are going to have color commentators in a big booth narrating the event, which will be broadcast throughout the property on Jumbotrons and all the TVs. 

“Remote cameras will go inside the judges tent, allowing people to view the competition as it happens in real-time. We are even changing up our cooking demonstrations hosted by AZ Foodie to get the attendees involved in prepping ingredients and giving them visually appealing recipes made for social media sharing. It’s about engagement.”

The Competition

More than 60 taco vendors will compete for taco domination this year. Festival attendees can sample creative steak, pork, seafood, veggie and vegan tacos for $3 a pop and vote in the People’s Choice competition.

The panel of Taco Society-sanctioned judges includes media personalities and food connoisseurs. They spend their days sequestered for hours at a time in the judges’ tent, blind-tasting taco delicacies from Arizona’s top taquerias, food trucks, and top chefs. Only one taco will win the top prize.

Making the best taco is serious business. Phillips recalls Chef Matt Carter nervously ringing him up the night before the inaugural competition, wondering aloud what his exact strategy should be. 

“He said, ‘What do I do? I have a crazy, complicated, authentic recipe, but I’m afraid it will be the Taco Bell taco that beats me,’” Phillips says. 

“It’s a real thing. We do a lot of training with the judges to educate their palate and their minds. Great chefs are making duck confit tacos and using tweezers, but I remind them that the judges aren’t all Michelin chefs from San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Many are regular folks, and we all have a memory connection to foods of our youth, comfort food tastes. 

“Sometimes the most unlikely person or establishment wins. At our Austin competition, a chain restaurant took home the top award. There was social pushback, but we had the scores to show that it was legitimate. 

“There are five proprietary categories in which to compete. You have to really compete in all five and bring your A-game, because anyone can win.

My mantra has always been, ‘It’s always about Taco Spirit,” says Phillips. “There’s aloha spirit and there’s taco spirit. Just do your best and lay it down.”

The Party

With plenty of room to spread out, the Arizona Taco Festival is introducing new attractions and bringing back crowd favorites, like the Ay! Chihuahua beauty pageant, interactive photo booths and chili pepper and taco-eating contests.

A centerpiece of the festival will be the Lucha Bar, a tent with wrestling luchadors and bleacher seating with its own bar, described as having a Tijuana-meets-Quentin Tarantino vibe.” When the luchas aren’t grappling, live bands and DJs entertain celebrants. 

Some like it (really, really) hot, so the Holy Hot Sauce expo tent will offer 100 styles of hot sauce to sample and purchase, along with a chance to vote on your favorites, all curated by Vic Clinco, who gained renown for having the largest private collection of hot sauces in the world. 

The Taco Society culture tent, co-curated by local artist Gennaro Garcia will celebrate all things taco-centric in fashion, art, photography and music. Along similar lines, the folks who brought the Instagrammable “Tacotopia” experience to life in Tempe have created a Millennial Playground with taco seesaws, guacamole ball pits, and taco-themed toys. 

For an extra fee, Chef Michael DeMaria of M Culinary will privately cater the VIP Cantina along with a full premium bar, ample lounge seating, games and entertainment. The tickets include RFID bracelets with $35 food credit to spend on samples throughout the festival. It’s important to note that all vendors will be cashless this year.

What’s a celebration without a wedding? One lucky couple will get married Day of the Dead-style on the main stage, which will be venue to dozens of spectacles and contests throughout the weekend. 

While it might seem outlandish, Phillips attests that he, too, is planning a most unusual vow renewal for his tenth anniversary.

“I’m going to surprise my wife by renewing our vows at the Taco Bell Chapel in Las Vegas,” Phillips revealed.

That’s true taco spirit.

Events and tickets are updated on the festival’s website. Single-day general admission tickets are $15 each. Military discounts and VIP packages are also available.


10th Annual Arizona Taco Festival

Oct. 12–13 | 11 a.m.–7 p.m. | WestWorld of Scottsdale | 16601 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale | $15 General Admission per day or $25 Weekend Pass 

$150 Cantina VIP per day or $220 Weekend Pass | Tequila Expo and Holy Hot Sauce Expo require additional tickets | aztacofestival.com