Date: June 27, 2015
It’s a festival! Of Tacos! The best food ever! An idea itself worthy of a 9.99 rating; what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, apparently. To start, they couldn’t have picked a worse location. It was in a commercial/industrial zone. This caused several problems. There was no parking, we parked ¾ mile away – which okay, I get to work off a few extra tacos. But, having to park so far away, we were forced to walk on a busy road with no sidewalk (because it is an industrial area), then cross that same busy road just to get into the festival. Next, instead of the pleasant aroma of tacos, we were greeted by that wonderful Denver industrial-by-product smell. Finally, we were crammed on to a small street of gravel and broken glass, surrounded by warehouse buildings. For those that have been to Taste of Chicago, imagine a similar set up on Congress, but instead of a nice big park on either side to escape the crowds there are buildings. Only one of which was accessible – the tequila expo ($20 ticket, just to get in).
Next problem: The whole event needs streamlining. As we arrived, there was a giant queue to get in, despite having prepaid tickets in hand. The holdup was twofold. First, prepaid tickets and tickets-at-the-door formed the same line. Second, they were checking everyone’s ID, even if you didn’t plan on drinking. Once inside, they didn’t have a ticket system for the food – rather you paid each vendor, causing backups everywhere. I’ve seen shorter lines at Disney.
They did have some good ideas; they had a stage set up for live music. They also had a wrestling ring, for some Mexican wrestling. There was Chihuahua racing somewhere. Fun ideas, but only added to the congestion.
On to the food! [Reminder, ratings guide at the top of the page]
The first vendor I visited, Spicy Mexican Catering, had both the best taco of the day and the worst taco of the day. It also offered the friendliest service, the host chatted with every customer, not just taking orders. At three tacos for $6, I got one of each, chicken, steak, and pork. The chicken taco was not good (5.5). It had a flat acidic taste and was otherwise severely underseasoned. The steak was in the middle (7.5), a bit dry, but probably to be expected from sitting in a chafing dish. (The vendors had to fight a tough balancing act – prepare for the onslaught by preparing the meat ahead of time, and risk being dry; or do made-to-order tacos, taking longer, but backing up the line, and risk people walking away.) Finally, the best taco of the day was the pork al pastor (8.5) – as was predicted by the friendly host. It had all the greasy, spicy, savory goodness that I was looking for in a taco. The condiment bar was self-serve (a definite bonus as some trucks did not do this), but I believe I didn’t put enough cilantro/onion on my taco, because that would have pushed the score even higher. Bonus: Came with a Chili Colorado – a flavorful, but non-spicy pepper. No extra charge. Vendor Rating: 7.63
The next vendor, La Tapatia, also prepared the meat ahead of time and sat in chafing dishes. It showed. All the meat here was dry, especially the Barbacoa taco (6.1). It was swimming in juice yet it still managed to be dry – not sure how they managed that. It was nowhere near the quality of Chipotle; even I make a better Barbacoa. The steak taco here was also pretty dry (6.3); I think they used too lean of a cut, it really could have used some fat to make it a bit juicier. The pork taco was once again the best of the lot (7.1), but not nearly as good as Spicy Mexican Catering. I got the three tacos for $6. Vendor Rating: 6.6
Chile Billy’s, is not for the math challenged. They offered two different tacos – a Carnitas taco for $2 and an Adobo Chicken taco for $3. They offered “Any 3 tacos for $8.” There are four different combinations of three tacos – One saves you money by getting the deal; a second combination is the same price regardless; the final two combinations you actually spend more by getting their “deal.” The Carnitas taco (8.1) came with a chipotle cherry sauce that was outstanding. It was sweet and spicy and highly unique as no other vendor had it (that I saw). The carnitas part of the taco was unmemorable (if you are wondering why it didn’t usurp the pork al pastor at SMC). So far I haven’t mentioned the tortillas – they have complemented the tacos very well, but they haven’t added anything. That changed with the Adobo Chicken taco. All the tacos were soft shell, and then grilled for a bit, this one, by chance, got a little extra grill and had a slight crisp to it that added a different dimension that I haven’t had yet. The chicken adobo taco (8.3) had a great char taste – definitely one of my favorite tacos, I only wish I had added their chipotle cherry sauce to this taco as well. [They also had a self-serve condiment bar.] Vendor Rating: 8.1
At this point, I was getting very thirsty (especially when you look at all my taco ratings that include the word dry) and the crowded nature of the festival came into play again. There were only two drink vendors, the first, right by my table, was wrapped all the way around the food trucks. The second was all on the other end of the street, but the line was shorter. I waited in the “short” line for 40 minutes to get a $6 beer.
Once refreshed, I hopped in a relatively short line, Chivi’s, to get a unique taco that I have wanted to try all my life – the Lengua (or beef tongue) taco. I get about five people from the front of the line when they erase the one taco I wanted to try from their chalkboard menu. This was three hours into a two-day event and they have already run out of food. Frustrated, I go to another vendor. Tempted to give this truck a 1.0, but instead I’ll leave it unrated.
The final stop of the day is Dude Bro Taco. Only the final stop of the day because I can’t take the lines anymore. It took almost an hour to get through this line, despite “only” two dozen people in front of me. A far less math challenged place as the taco prices were 1 for $4, 2 for $7, and 3 for $9. They had two different meats, carnitas and brisket. They get bonus points for having guacamole as an option ($0.50 per taco). The carnitas taco (6.5) needed more seasoning. The brisket taco (8.0) was a good solid overall taco, though it was more BBQ-y than taco-y. If that is the worst thing you can say about a taco, you are doing OK. Vendor Rating: 6.83
I wish I could have sampled more fare from more vendors, but it took me three hours to visit only four food vendors and one beer vendor. I never found Comida, this year’s winner of the taco festival. I don’t feel bad about skipping the pizza truck or the truck with pictures of hamburgers on it. They sold tacos, but I was looking for a bit more authenticity. I also passed on the Chinese truck, but in fairness, they were Latin/Asian fusion – an interesting combination. I missed a number of other trucks as well, but more because I didn’t want to stand in line anymore.
Needless to say I found this to be a very disappointing event. There could be a number of improvements. First, a new location. This has the feel of a festival that has grown too big for its current location. A nice grassy field, with room to spread out would be much better. Second, better parking and some sort of crossing guard, so that all the drunk people don’t get hit by a car leaving the event. Third, streamline the entry process with prepaid ticket holders in one swift moving line, and tickets-at-the-door in another line. Fourth, once inside, have big signs that say you need a wristband to get alcohol. The have an optional line for the wristbands inside the event. Fifth, create a ticket system for taco purchases to help expedite the lines at the food vendors. Part of the holdup was the constant exchange of cash. A centralized location for payment would help. Fourth, more drink vendors. A lot more. Dehydration is a bad thing.
Most importantly, a special thank you to my beautiful girlfriend for putting up with the event. Not only can she not have tacos, she can’t have a single ingredient in the tacos. She saved a spot at a table for me, in the shade, while I stood in line for hours.
WWYT Rating: 5.07