Story and photos by Victoria Leuang / Contributing Writer
Taco lovers celebrated Nashville’s first Taco Festival on Saturday at Centennial Park. The event, which sold out days beforehand, was sponsored by The Tennessean and presented in partnership with Gannett Media and USA TODAY. The festival was founded in Arizona by business partners Rick Phillips and David Tyda as the Arizona Taco Festival, but this year marks the first national, multi-city Taco Festival.
Tickets were sold online in advance for this popular event. The general admission tickets were $12 to enter and included two free tacos and one drink token. The $50 VIP package included 10 tokens for tacos, one Tequila Expo wristband, private bar, private restrooms and a lounging area. The Tequila Expo offered guests the chance to sample top-shelf tequilas with a separate purchase of a wristband for $20 for 10 samples. Meanwhile, taco vendors were based on a token system. The cost for one token was two dollars each and they were used as cash for tacos. There were tents for water and soda that also accepted tokens. Margaritas, beer and other alcoholic beverages were sold separately.
Walter Versen, Taco Festival Nashville organizer, was the tour manager for REO Speedwagon for 13 years. Now he helps coordinate The Taco Festival in the cities it visits across the country.
“It has grown to (an) enormous event, 40,000 people,” Versen said. “We are selling fun. Everyone has their own favorite taco truck, kind of like hot dogs.”
The event featured live music as well as unique entertainment as Lucha Libre wrestling matches, taco and hot chili pepper-eating contests, a Chihuahua beauty pageant and taco judging.
“I’ve never been in a contest before, and I heard about this two weeks ago. Since I saw this I’ve been eating a Carolina Reaper everyday to prepare myself,” said Christian Field, who won the hot chili pepper contest.
Approximately 20 food trucks and taco vendors made their best tacos with chicken, beef, pork, seafood or anything else to perfect a winning taco. Many other vendors sold not only tacos, but tortas, empanadas, arepas, horchata and other Hispanic foods.
“The best taco makers … for these events, in six hours, can feed 1,500 to 2,500 (people). Some can do it, some can’t,” said Versen.
After selling tacos all day, the results were in. Judges cast their votes for their favorite taco based on taste, texture and appearance. Not all of the participating restaurants were local, including participants from places like Clarksville and Jackson and some coming from as far away as West Virginia.
Six trophies were presented to the winners of each category: Best Chicken, Best Beef, Best Pork, Best Seafood, Best Anything-Goes and the Grand Champion. Pancho and Lefty’s Cantina, located downtown on 5th Avenue South, took home the awards for Best Beef, Best Seafood and Best Anything-Goes; Black Sheep Burrito & Brews, located in Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia, won Best Chicken and Best Pork; and Sopapilla’s, located on Davenport Boulevard in Franklin, was crowned Grand Champion. Sopapilla’s will go to Phoenix, Arizona, to compete against Grand Champions from other cities for a chance to be the U.S. champion, according to Versen.
The Taco Festival will return to Nashville next fall at Centennial Park, with hopes to double the number of restaurants to allow more tickets to be sold. More information on the Taco Festival can be found here.
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