Yes, Virginia...there is such a thing as certified taco judging.
I began my day at the Tucson Taco Festival as a judge for this premiere event. The event is part of the National Taco Association, of which I am now a certified judge.
There were 23 other judges, including food writers, Karyn Zoldan and Mary Paganelli and food radio host, Matt Russell. Dan Gibson from the Tucson Weekly was also a judge. We were all sequestered in a large tent. The sponsors kept us well hydrated with all the water and/or beer we wanted. We could hear the live music and just get a peek of the crowd. We weren’t allowed to alter the tacos in anyway, if they came with a side of salsa or lime we had to just let those items be.
Tacos were divided in four categories: chicken, pork, beef and seafood. Every hour, starting at noon, contestants brought their wares to the tent – we couldn’t see who they were – where the tacos were checked in and then distributed to us in a well-planned process. There were four tables with six judges each and in spite of the fact that not every judge got to taste every taco, we still each ate over 20 tacos each. We were not allowed to talk amongst ourselves while we sampled and scored the tacos on presentation, taste and texture on a scale of one to nine.
The variety of tacos was amazing. The seafood tacos, for the most part, really rocked. One ceviche taco was jammed packed with a mess of fish and was tangy and sweet with just a slightly crispy shell. Another one had a clever shell. It looked as though the chef – whoever that was – had cut the tortilla into a square and then deep-fried it.
There was an outstanding pork taco that won me over with the first bite. It had everything a good taco should have: creaminess, crunchiness, a bit of heat, perfect balance of seasonings, tender meat and lots of it. Oddly, in that same round there was my least favorite taco where the only flavor came from an odd tangy sauce. The meat had no flavor at all and the texture was just plain weird. One of the other tables had a chicken taco where the shell was a waffle!
In between rounds we wandered the grounds and made a couple of trips to the Tequila Expo. Of course, we sampled the various choices there – a there were plenty of them – but not so many as to impair our judgment or palates. We finished off with a mix of smaller categories such as salsa, guacamole, and anything goes. By that time we were taco weary, so the others were a nice way to end the contest.
I had a spectacular time. I ate good food with old friends and met some new, fun people. There were plenty of delicious potent potables. I loved every minute and can’t wait to do it again.