Tortillas make the taco, and these days it helps that they’re flexible.
Serving as both framework and delivery system, one tortilla might enclose traditional Mexican flavors while the next has to handle whatever imaginative chefs can cook up.
That range will be on edible display when Top Taco returns to New Orleans next week, on March 15.
The festival and competition are back after a sold-out debut in 2017, and this year, the event itself is growing to accommodate more people, more restaurants and more of the tequila-fueled revelry that made the inaugural edition a hit.
This year’s Top Taco moves from its original site at Spanish Plaza to a larger riverfront location at nearby Woldenberg Park. And this time it’s preceded by a progression of events dubbed Agave Week, a new and first-of-its-type showcase for the shared ingredient in tequila and mezcal and a whole heady family of related liquors. Those events begin Sunday (March 11).
What’s staying the same is the festival’s all-inclusive format, which taps the taco’s natural role as easy, quick, one-after-another street food snack. Admission includes all the tacos from more than 50 restaurants and drinks from local bars and liquor brands across the festival grounds.
“People love tacos, that’s what it comes down to,” said Shane Finkelstein, founder of Top Taco in New Orleans and proprietor of the Harahan restaurant Nacho Mama’s. “And the beauty of it is that you can sample so many.”
The local Top Taco event is a spin-off from a similar festival that debuted in Denver in 2014. Finkelstein worked with its producers to bring the concept to New Orleans.
A portion of the proceeds from the local event benefit One Heart NOLA, a nonprofit that supports New Orleans’ foster children and families.
During the event, chefs and bartenders compete for awards from judges and the crowd, who rank top tacos and cocktails in traditional and creative categories.
Last year, the Kenner eatery Taqueria Chilangos swept the taco awards, surprising many by beating out much better-known chefs and larger restaurant groups. Chilangos won for its traditional tacos al pastor, and perhaps for some of the flair that proprietor David Montes de Oca brought to the presentation on his custom-made taco trailer (in a tragic postscript, he died a few months later at age 36).
A hallmark of the event, however, is the wide range of flavors different contenders bring to the table. The first New Orleans edition saw tacos made with everything from grilled alligator with charred okra to Texas-style brisket.
“People understand a taco can be made with anything inside, and chefs love that kind of challenge,” Finkelstein said.
The restaurants tend to keep their taco particular under wraps until the competition, but the range of contenders gives a clue to the diversity of flavors to expect.
Restaurants participating this year include plenty of Mexican eateries, from the traditional, like Chilangos, Casa Borrega, Del Fuego Taqueria, El Pavo Real, Felipe’s and Los Jefes, to the less-traditional, like Juan’s Flying Burrito and Rum House. But the line up extends far beyond Latin American-style restaurants, running through examples as varied as Blue Oak BBQ, Balise, Peche Seafood Grill, Sac-a-Lait and SoBou. See the full list at toptaconola.com.
Bands slated to perform include the Iguana’s, Latin rock ensemble Los Poboycitos, Afro-Cuban jazz and groove band Otra and Margie Perez’s Latin band Muevelo.
Top Taco has this year expanded with Agave Week, a series of dining and drinking events at different venues around the city leading up to the main event on Thursday night.
On Sunday (March 11), Superior Grill will chase the record for “world’s largest bloody Maria bar” at a brunch-time event featuring the tomato-and-tequila cousin to the bloody Mary (tickets are $25).
Later that day, there’s a bar crawl and scavenger hunt in the French Quarter, beginning at the eatery St. Lawrence (online registration required).
Monday has a five-course cocktail dinner at Casa Borrega showcasing the cuisine of Mexico’s Oaxaca region with Suerte tequila drinks (tickets are $75).
On Tuesday (March 13), there’s a bar crawl and margarita contest at a circuit of Warehouse District spots, dubbed the Hornitos VIP Margarita Mix Off. It begins at Manning’s (register online). A bar crawl post-party at El Patio includes a pig roast with all-you-can-eat taco deals.
Tuesday also has a launch party for new tequila brand Blue Nectar at Baru Tapas Bistro, with samples and tapas.
Wednesday brings an all-day agave seminar and tasting, aimed at industry professionals and aficionados, held at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (tickets start at $150).
On Wednesday night, the Caribbean Room serves a cocktail-paired dinner ($100) with El Tesoro tequila, followed by drinks at the rooftop Hot Tin Bar.
That same night, Del Fuego Taqueria hosts a happy hour that day (4-7 p.m.) with Religion Tequila (tickets are $20), and Tequila House on Bourbon Street has a free Ghost Tequila party with fire-breathing and live music on the patio.
Also on Wednesday, Ohm Lounge hosts a pop-up dinner from the Denver restaurant Señor Bear ($40, or $50 at the door). Ohm Lounge and its neighbor Barcadia will also throw a Top Taco pre-party that night, from 9 p.m., with DJ Mannie Fresh and cocktail samples (free, register in advance).
Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar closes out Agave Week with a Farewell Fiesta on Friday, March 16, from 1-4 p.m. with specials on boiled crawfish, margaritas and the restaurant's Top Taco creations (free).
Get details and tickets for these events at toptaconola.com.
March 15 at Woldenberg Park
Tickets are $69 for general admission (from 7 p.m.), $89 for first tasting (from 6 p.m.) and $125 for VIP
See details and Agave Week event schedules at toptaconola.com.
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