Date: Saturday, October 9, 2010
Destination: Arizona Taco Festival, Scottsdale, Arizona
9:30 AM: I am on my way to the Arizona Taco Festival, the kickoff event for the National Taco Association. The festival is being held today at the Waterfront in downtown Scottsdale. I am one of 40 certified judges who will be analyzing over 120 taco entries from 31 Valley area restaurants. The ultimate winner will be named the Top Taco and go home with a gigantic trophy, as well as a portion of cash from the $7,500 award monies being provided to the winners.
I started training for the event yesterday. I ate a light vegetarian lunch, then skipped dinner and breakfast this morning, so I would be ready for eating 24 big bites of four kinds of tacos. I am excited, hungry and ready to begin my quest for the perfect taco.
10:00 AM: I am checking in at the official Judges’ Tent, and claim my photo embossed, colored name badge that reads, “Official Certified Judge”. We judges became certified many weeks before when we were mandated to show our judging skills by eating two tacos, and downing a shot of tequila. I place the impressive name tag around my neck and get acquainted with my fellow judges.
10:15 AM: All 40 judges, many of who are Twitter friends, are instructed to sit down at five long tables inside of the secluded Judges Tent. Our taco captain and leader, an expert in judging BBQ contests, gives us a brief reminder of what to look for in the tacos we taste today. He warns us to “not over do it” and cautions that if we don’t pace ourselves, “we will not make it to the end.” I questioned what that really meant, and quickly looked around for the nearest exit just in case there could be an emergency. He then offers everyone complimentary samples of Tums. No takers.
Official placemats are put on the tables, along with scorecards. Each judge will taste six different tacos each hour, from four separate categories: chicken, pork, beef and seafood.
10:45 AM: The first round of chicken tacos arrive at my table in a giant white cardboard box. We eyeball the looks of the tacos, make note of how visually appealing they appear, and write down our scores. The rules call for a nine-point scoring system to be used. Six is the average. After analyzing the first set of tacos, five more boxes of chicken tacos are presented for our visual scoring.
Now, the fun begins. We select one taco from each of the six boxes and place it in front of us on our special placemats. All six tacos have to be sat down before we are allowed to take one little bite. Rules!
10:55 AM: The first thing I notice is that ALL of the tacos are sitting on soft tortillas, either corn, or in one case, flour. Unfortunately, no crunch in this round for Judges Table #3.
The flavors are varied from mild, to medium. In most cases, the chefs appear to strive for a middle of the road flavor and taste profile. Most likely to ensure they don’t offend anyone. Only one taco in this category is spicy, which is my preference.
Some of the entries are cleverly displayed: one sits upright in a half-bent Budweiser can, one lounges on a bed of bright orange sliced raw sweet potatoes. Another rests on an eco-friendly mini palm leaf plate. Bites are taken, scores are made, and the uneaten portions go into the trash. Some of the clever and more experienced food judges whip out little plastic baggies to wrap up their leftovers.
11:45 AM: We go through the same drill for the pork categories. The pork tastes are wide-ranging from Hatch New Mexican green chile style, to long and slow-roasted red chile shredded pork. There are craftier displays in this round too, including one entry with a baby voodoo doll peeking into the taco from a crepe paper green flower. I want to keep the doll, but our strict table chief makes me return it to the white box it came in.
12:20 PM: After sitting in the tent for several hours, it was time for a break so a few of us decide to check out the Tequila Tent. This is where our judges’ badges come in mighty handy. We easily pass straight through the crowd, and are offered unlimited tiny tastes of Bianco, Anejo, Roposado and, even Pomegranate flavored Tequila. One of the most intriguing things about the Tequila event is the exquisite ceramic and glass bottles holding the various brands. I mentally note that these could make perfect bubble bath containers.
Several tequila vendors have creative aroma displays, providing tasters the opportunity to smell the various scents that make up tequila. Lemon, lime, cinnamon, green pepper, vanilla, coconut, cloves . . . who knew?
12:45 PM: Back to the tent and judging for the third round begins. This set of tacos contains beef, and by the time all of these samples are tasted, Judges’ Table #3 designates this batch as the favorite group of the day. These entries are deemed tasty, with different flavor profiles. Finally, some tacos full of spices and seasoning. One entry receives plenty of attention from the Judges. Item #5 showcases a tiny fried baby quail egg sitting on top of bite-sized steak pieces and arugula with small marinated red onion slices.
1:45 PM: Seafood tacos are the last round. In all fairness, this group probably should have been tasted first. Some of the entries taste a wee bit too fishy. Our table samples lobster, shrimp and scallop tacos.
3:00 PM: The judging is complete. As our leaders type in the scores in a computerized program on a laptop, my job is done. After a fruitful day of sipping tequila, eating tacos, chatting and texting with lots of new foodie friends, it is time to leave the tent.
The winners will be announced later in the afternoon on the main stage. I will have to wait, along with the many chefs who created these tacos, to learn who the first-ever Top Taco award will go to. My first experience as a Certified Taco Judge was a good one. Many thanks to the National Taco Association for inviting me to participate, and to all of the chefs for creating many new and exciting tacos.