LA Weekly‘s and Bill “Street Gourmet LA” Esparza’s sophomore Tacolandia food festival took place on Saturday, June 28, 2014, in the Plaza Park at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, adjacent to historic Olvera Street, a change from the parking lot of the Hollywood Palladium last year. Anticipation had been building recently, with the inaugural event having received near-universal acclaim from those attending; Bill linked to many of the positive reports in his own debrief last year, including mine.
I started looking forward to this year’s event shortly after the last one ended. When tickets went on sale a few months ago, I was not going to let Tacolandia get sold out again without getting tickets and then have to beg, cajole, or steal (or, in my case last year, win) them to attend. So, I grabbed a Premium Admission for $45, a $20 “premium” over general admission. which included a “VIP” gift bag and 5 drink tickets. As expected, the event sold out, and finally the date had arrived. Would it live up to expectations? Would there be a sophomore slump? Well, I have some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that the food is still superb. The general admission ticket, $25 (up $5 from last year) is still an amazing deal for four hours of all-you-can-eat feasting at 40+ vendors serving a range of traditional and innovative tacos and other Mexican dishes! And the organizers improved on many of the issues I had with last year’s event. But I’ll get back to all that in a moment. Let’s go over the bad news…
Lines were the biggest issue, but not necessarily for the food. The wait just to get into the event itself was very long. General and Premium admissions only had one line each, creating a bottleneck at the entrance. I had gotten in relatively early, just after 3 PM, with a friend who had already been waiting in the Premium line before the event started. Other friends who arrived just 10-15 minutes later had to wait 30-45 minutes to get in. However, the more egregious issue was the lines for drinks. They were staggeringly long, easily a half hour wait or more.
The event only had three drink stations, bars basically, serving both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I personally stood in one line for 45 minutes to get a drink. That’s nearly one-fifth the duration of the entire event! And I was only able to use 2 of my 5 drink tickets before the bars closed down at 6:30 PM (a condition of the event permit, I believe). It felt at times like I had to choose between getting drinks or getting food, to the exclusion of the other!
(Jarritos did have a truck giving away sodas for free, same as last year, but it was parked at the end of one of the three “wings” of the larger venue, so it was not as easy as last year to grab a free, cold drink whenever you needed one.)
Also, despite the fact the event website stated that drink tickets are “good for beer/wine/cocktails/soda/water”, you could not redeem your drink tickets for water; the bars would only sell them, at $2 a bottle. In fact, you could buy any drink for cash, so drink tickets were not the only way to get alcohol. If you had a Premium Admission, to get your money’s worth, you basically had to spend a significant amount of time in line to use up your tickets, or get all of your drinks at once and look like a lush!
What about the VIP bag? Perhaps part of the value of the Premium Admission went into that… Um, no. Now, I’m not expecting Oscars-presenter level swag, but I did expect a little more than an Amoeba Music plastic bag (not even one of those reusable shopping ones) with a package of flour tortillas and a bunch of ads and coupons inside. Retail Price: $5 (if that)?
But enough negativity! Lest you think it was all terremotos y chupacabras (the, um, “opposite” of rainbows and unicorns), with the exception of the lines and the general drink situation, the event was fairly well run.
This year’s venue was much bigger, and Bill said they sold a thousand more tickets, but the event didn’t feel too crowded. Lively, yes, and for certain food stands–and the damned drink stations–when the lines snaked a bit long, somewhat congested, but overall the crowds were very manageable. Organizers did a good job not over-selling the event. Also, the venue had much more shade and a lot more seating compared to last year! So while it was a warm day out, and you still get a good bit of sun waiting in lines, the venue provided many spots to digest and rest after your 10th, 20th, or 30th taco before going back for more!
Speaking of food, let’s get to it! A vast majority of last year’s restaurants participated again, and fewer participants ran out of food early this year.
Unfortunately, one of the return participants that did run out early was Guerrilla Tacos, at around 4:30 PM; I just posted about them last week in anticipation of Tacolandia. Their stand was very popular, with long lines as soon as the event started. As anticipated, chef Wes Avila made a vegetarian, actually vegan, dish, with bright, complex flavors (the truffles did not dominate all), and a nice salty kick!
Another returning chef, Trey Foshee of George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, San Diego, CA, brought back his dish from last year, along with two others. He had plenty of food, and he and his crew were serving right up to the end! The cured snapper this year was better than last year! For me, it even managed to beat out his other savory dish, and that one had crispy pig ears and pig tails! The dessert tostada was also excellent!
As with last year, Bill invited several chefs and restaurants from Mexico to participate. All the ones this year were veterans of last year’s event. Tacos Kokopelli of Tijuana brought three this year, including a show favorite from last year, the “Kraken” octopus taco.
Chef Javier Plascencia, and his new Baja California restaurant Finca Altozano, brought one of the more “challenging” dishes, a taco with braised bull penis. The texture was like the beef tendon you’d find in phở. Beyond the shock value, it was a very good dish, with the birria of beef cheeks and tongue.
Sabina Bandera and her Ensenada mariscos stand La Guerrerense was back, serving their signature tostada with a roasted sea urchin base and topped with octopus, scallops, and bacalao. Fantastic stuff!
Serious props to the participants from Mexico for coming all this way! Hope they all come back again next year!
Leading up to the event, there were questions about why Eggslut was participating. I asked Bill about that, and he said that with chef Johnny Lee’s experience at Rivera and his participation in Tacolandia last year with Spirit House, Bill was glad to have him back even if the restaurant he’s currently at didn’t normally serve tacos. I think it was a great decision, though I’m not sure Eggslut needs any more business. ;-) Their line, like at Grand Central Market, was one of the longest at the event, and the breakfast-y Neuske’s bacon and fried quail egg taco was a delicious and inspired dish!
Alright, enough of my blathering. Here are the rest of the tacos that I had at Tacolandia 2014:
The food was the main reason I was there, and I was really happy with just about everything I had! My favorites this year were probably La Guerrerense, Eggslut, Finca Altozano, and George’s at the Cove!
I do have one big disappointment as far as the food goes, but it was with myself. Unlike last year, where I tried dishes from nearly two dozen participants, this year I only got to try 15 unique dishes from 11 participants, 20 total dishes including repeats. I got stuck in some long lines, not just for drinks, and I also didn’t take advantage of the divide-and-conquer technique my friends were using to sample as many places as possible. I won’t bother to list all the ones I wish I had tried. I’ll just make sure I do better next year!
(Chris Hei, my “sidekick” from last year, managed to sample 30 unique dishes this year, so please read his post to get a more comprehensive view of what was available at Tacolandia 2014!)
To wrap up, here are some suggestions for the organizers for next year:
- Staff the entrance to get more attendees in quicker.
- Give Premium Admission more benefits. It doesn’t have to be swag. Early admission would be a great perk!
- Set up more drink stations! Have separate ones for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Provide water fountains to help attendees stay hydrated.
Here are some tips for attendees of future Tacolandia:
- Get there early! Four hours may seem like a long time, but it goes quick!
- Take a quick walk around the entire venue when you first arrive and see what interests you. Prioritize!
- If a line is really long, unless it’s a must-try for you, come back later. The line will likely be shorter.
- Bring a water bottle. Freeze it the night before.
For participants, you guys all did a great job! One thing I would have loved was for each stand to have a description of the dish(es) served with the participant’s name on the same sign or display. It was really hard to keep track of some of the dishes I had, because not all participants had clear signage.
To close, I wanted to say thanks again to L.A. Weekly, Bill Esparza, and all the participants for putting on a great event with fantastic food! Tacolandia 2014 had some growing pains, but no sophomore slump! Let’s make Tacolandia 2015 even better!
Link to above participants, alphabetical:
- Amor y Tacos
- Carnitas El Momo
- Finca Altozano
- George’s at the Cove
- Guerrilla Tacos
- Katsuji Tanabe of Mexikosher
- La Guerrerense
- Petty Cash Taqueria
- Tacos Kokopelli
- Tortas Ahogadas Ameca