LA Weekly‘s and Bill “Street Gourmet LA” Esparza’s third annual Tacolandia food festival took place this past Saturday, June 6, 2015, at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, same location as last year, adjacent to historic Olvera Street. This year, the number of participants ballooned to 80+ while the number of attendees increased 60%, from 2,500 last year to 4,000! VIP tickets for Tacolandia sold out in the first couple of weeks, and general admission tickets sold out a month and a half before the event!
Past Tacolandia events haven’t been without their issues, and at the end of my Tacolandia 2014 report, I recapped three areas for improvement: speeding up entrance times, giving VIP ticket holders more benefits, having better access to drinks. But before I get into whether the event improved on those issues this year, let’s get to the food!
With so many participants, I really felt like I needed to plan ahead. I prioritized chefs from outside the greater L.A. area, especially the ones coming from Mexico, and then I added in some of my favorite local chefs and establishments, particularly those I knew would be serving something not from their regular menus. I tried to stick to my list and did so for the most part. In the end I sampled 25 different dishes and only missed a handful that I had really wanted to try.
This year, Bill invited twice as many chefs and restaurants from Mexico as previous years, and they all brought their A-game:
Duck Pate Taco: Chef Diego Hernandez-Baquedano and his restaurant, Corazon de Tierra, in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico, produced a subtle taco that I thought was vegetarian at first. The pate was very smooth and acted almost as support for the carrots and goat cheese, rather than the headliner. The crumpled tortilla chips added some playful texture. The shiso, a Japanese touch, really added something different into the mix.
Sudado de Carne y Chile Colorado y Chicha: Chef Eloy Aluri Taller from Sonora, Mexico, created this mouthful of a name dish, which roughly translates to “stewed meat in red sauce with pork rinds” (I think). The contrast between the tender meat and crunchy chicharron was great, as was the creamy guacamole.
Kraken Taco: Tacos Kokopelli has made this taco every Tacolandia. Served with a pesto sauce that perfectly compliments the smokiness and brininess of just char-grilled octopus, it is a crowd favorite and ran out quickly, as did their other two dishes.
Polvora Taco: Ambitiously, Tacos Kokopelli always serves 2-3 different dishes at Tacolandia. The lox dish ran out before I had a chance to try it, though it seemed very similar to a dish they served last year. The Polvora this year was a little different than its equivalent last year, in that the salmon was grilled this year, and the chilmole served on it had blackberries in it. The squid, or probably octopus, ink was a great touch. The entire dish was just incredibly salmon-y, in the best way.
Grilled Squid Taco: Chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris, and their restaurant in Ensenada, Mexico, Manzanilla, served up some fantastic, charred yet tender, grilled squid. Only thing I didn’t like about it was that each serving was only half a taco. I wanted a whole one!
Seafood Tostada: Sabina Bandera‘s revered mariscos stand in Ensenada, La Guerrerense, has been a fixture at Tacolandia since the beginning. In the past, they’ve always been one of the last ones to run out (last year they still had seafood at the end of the event but no more tostadas to serve them on), so it was a bit surprising to see them cleaning up a few hours into this year’s event. Their placement near the main entrance meant their demand was front-loaded, and though they brought more food this year, they ran out faster than before.
Taco de Cabrito: Chef Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain of Pangea and La Embajada in in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, served a baby goat taco that was out of this world. The preparation was similar to the baby goat he had at a pre-Tacolandia Night of Modern Mexican Cuisine dinner at Broken Spanish. The grassy-gaminess of the goat was unmistakable yet subtle. The meat was tender but not mushy. One of my favorites of the show!
Of course, the SoCal-based chefs were no slouches either. Here were some of my favorites:
Octopus Tostada: Chef Laurent Quenioux of Bistro LQ was not present at the event, but his octopus tostada stood on its own. The octopus was quite tender, but still retained a nice, snappy chew.
Scallop Aguachile Tostada: What can I say about chef Wes Avila that I haven’t already said in my one or two posts on Guerrilla Tacos? Those who missed the aforementioned pre-Tacolandia Night of Modern Mexican Cuisine dinner at Broken Spanish, had a second chance to try it at Tacolandia. The scallops were incredibly clean tasting, while the chile de valle had a great kick!
Taco Dorado de Papas: This rolled taco, which is on the regular menu at chef Fabian Gallardo‘s Petty Cash Taqueria, was excellent, really light and crisply fried tortilla and great sweet/savory ingredients! When I finally go to PCT–I haven’t been, yet–I’ll be ordering this for sure. Amusingly, walking around the event I overheard multiple people asking about potato tacos, and I made sure to direct them here!
Sweetbreads Taco: After being absent from last year’s event, chefs Josh Gil and Daniel Snukal of Tacos Punta Cabras killed it with their dish this year! Served on a foie gras tortilla (?!) and topped with a great artichoke salsa, this was probably my second favorite preparation of sweetbreads ever! (The first was by chef Wes Avila at Guerrilla Tacos a few months ago. Shh.) The sweetbreads were creamy, a little nutty, not overcooked or bland. To be honest, I couldn’t specifically pick out the foie gras in the taste of the tortilla, but it did taste different, and was delicious; TPC’s tortillas are always made fresh and top notch!
Taco de Calabasita: This on-menu item from chef Ray Garcia‘s new casual eatery, B.S. Taqueria, gets my vote for best vegetarian taco. The dish was quite hearty and “meaty” for being all veggies, and had a bright, citrus-y pop thanks to a splash of lime juice. Even if you’re not vegetarian, which I am most certainly not, you’ll enjoy this taco!
Taco de Calamares: Last of my favorites, but certainly not least, is Taco Maria chef Carlos Salgado‘s Monterey squid taco, served on a charcoal-black blue corn and squid ink tortilla, with roasted peanuts and perslane. The squid was incredibly tender and flavorful, and the tortilla was just unreal to look at, it was so black it was shiny!
As for the ones that got away, I really regret missing Corazon y Miel‘s carnitas taco, with heritage pork cooked by the experts at Carnitas El Momo, and aromatics and other ingredients cooked in foie gras fat! The dish was featured on Food GPS‘s “Dose of Vitamin P” series this week.
Tacolandia remains one of my favorite food festivals, and I look forward to the next year’s as soon as the current one is over. From what I hear, they’re going to go bigger! As strange as it is for me to say, I actually hope they don’t. Having so many vendors meant it was likely literally impossible to sample everything, which meant cutting participants that I love, like Carnitas El Momo or Ricky’s Fish Tacos, from my list, because they’re likely serving dishes available on their regular menu. It’s human nature to regret what one might have missed out on, so I felt kind of bad I couldn’t try everything. While all of Bill’s selections are thoughtfully made, I think I’d prefer a more tightly curated list of 40 participants. I’ll live, though, if that doesn’t happen.
I don’t really have any real, new criticisms for this year besides it being a little too big. One minor criticism I have was that many of the participants did not have description of their dishes on display at their stations. Some did, but most did not, it seemed. If that could be a requirement, it would be a great help not just to food bloggers and Instagrammers like myself, but to everyone. Other than that, I thought Tacolandia 2015 was as well run as a food festival of its scale could hope for!
Oh, so how did Tacolandia do on entrance lines, VIP benefits, and drink access this year?
Entrance Lines: Being stuck in outside last year was quite motivating for my group of friends, and we all arrived an hour before the event started this year, so they all got in fairly quickly, even with GA tickets (I bought a VIP ticket). If you arrived just as the event was starting, you probably still had to wait a while, but it did not seem to take as long as last year. The organizers set up Disneyland-like cordoning for the GA line to allow the thousands of attendees to queue up without blocking foot traffic for Olvera Street visitors, so that was good. Even if you were stuck for a while outside, the event was extended from four hours to five hours in duration, so you didn’t miss too much, though of course many participants ran out of food before 8 PM.
VIP Benefits: Unlike LA Weekly’s The Essentials in March or its upcoming Burgers & Beer event in August, VIP ticketholders for Tacolandia still did not get early entry. Unlike the GA line, the VIP line did not have a well organized cordons, so a crowd of people amassed along Main Street. This year’s “swag” came in a reusable canvas bag, which was a big improvement from the Amoeba Music plastic bag, no offense to them. The contents were still an assortment of coupons and a package of organic tortillas from La Tortilla Factory, and, new this year, tickets to the OC Fair! VIP also included drink tickets, which were not actually redeemable for any beverages available for purchase, unfortunately, but rather for drink samples in the VIP area. Thing was, the vendors handing out samples weren’t collecting tickets, so you could get as many samples as you wanted.
(New this year, in both the GA and VIP entrance lines: increased security presence, bag checks, and frisking!)
Drink Access: This year, drinks were so much more accessible compared to last year, with at least a dozen drink booths selling alcoholic beverages as well as bottled water. Jarritos was on hand again, giving out free sodas and mineral waters to anyone who wanted one, and they were stationed right by the main entrance, so no one could miss them! On the downside, security did not allow people to bring their own water bottles. When the event is outdoors and in the summer, we should be allowed to bring our own water.
So, two improvements out of three ain’t bad. Next year I’ll likely forgo the VIP ticket, unless they make significant changes to its benefits, and just plan to arrive early to the event! Ironically, since the VIP entrance was on the other side of the event space from the main entrance, while some of the more popular booths (Bistro LQ, Corazon de Tierra, Guerrilla Tacos, La Guerrerense, Soho Taco, etc.) were near the main entrance, my friends with GA tickets actually got into those lines ahead of me!
Please visit my Instagram feed to check out the remaining dozen or so dishes and shots from Tacolandia 2015! Thanks Bill and LA Weekly for throwing such a great shindig! Can’t wait for Tacolandia 2016!