Recap: How the North Texas Taco Festival Stole Deep Ellum

Taco Party's taco al pastor (photos by Ariel Gonzalez)
Taco Party’s taco al pastor (photos by Ariel Gonzalez)

The tortilla. The filling. The salsa. They are, in the doctrinal words of Mexican author Alejandro Escalante, the “Holy Trinity of the Taco.” If so, then Saturday saw a veritable Taco Mass, when hundreds of hungry Dallasites genuflected before the altar of this elemental, but infinitely variable mainstay of Texan cuisine at the first-ever North Texas Taco Festival. But let’s be honest: with a dozen local taco shops plying their trade, not to mention eclectic arts and crafts stalls, funky live music, an erudite taco panel, a throwdown between five of Dallas’ hottest chefs, and—for good measure—abundant cervezas, the festival beat the hell out of church.

Taco Trail’s José Ralat-Maldonado joined forces with Rich Vana of Entrée Dallas, Brandon Castillo of Deep Ellum Outdoor Market, and Laura Allen of Walk the Light to throw a Mexican-style taquiza—or, taco street party—in DEOM’s usual block starting at 11 a.m. Like most, I strolled up at around noon, taking in the scenery, the breezy day, the good feelings before flipping out over the insanely long lines. For the moment, I reined in my appetite and decided to wade (read: jostle) through the teeming hungry to check out the non-taco offerings. At the first clearing, I came upon a lonely burro, adorned in kitschy burro-wear, and connected by a drooping lead rope to his equally lonely master. It took me a second to register that the pair were waiting to snap some shots with festival-goers (incidentally, the burro and his sidekick were stationed before a pair of sky-blue porta-potties, making for a killer absurdist backdrop). I obliged with a photo, helping kick-start the burro’s business for the day.

Jose holding tacos, of course (left); Princess Buttercup (right)
Jose holding tacos, of course (left); Princess Buttercup (right)
The block
The block

Turning from the burro, I encountered the miscellany of collectibles and comestibles that reliably fill in the open space at festivals (hear the subtle rhyme there?). Lounging stall managers presided over a litany of objects you never thought you’d need: terrarium plants, lug nut sculptures, fluorescent hair accessories, soy candles, and arrowhead jewelry. Also for sale were specialty teas and an array of pickles. And standing bravely alone amidst the Mexophile chaos: an inexplicable Louisiana Pralines stand.

But, honestly, why not? As I would learn from an hour-long panel discussion on the intricacies of the taco, the spirit of the taco is ecumenical. Inside the Curtain Club, panelists Escalante, author of La Tacopedia (the authoritative taco encyclopedia); Anastacia Quinoñes, chef at Komali; and John Cuellar, owner of Oak Cliff’s El Corazon de Tejas, expatiated on the taco’s versatility, which has enabled it to cross borders. Limited only by its Holy Trinity of components, the taco can be constructed with numberless ingredients and assembled this way and that, allowing disparate cultures the slack to make the taco their own.

Live music
Live music

I witnessed this theory of versatility in action, as I stepped out of the increasingly cerebral discussion (at one point, Cuellar said these words: “The difference between things cannot be explained.”) onto the Curtain Club patio, where throwdown chefs were mixing unusual ingredients with culinary knack to produce some seductive tacos. Rich Vana, editor of Entrée Dallas and a co-organizer of the festival, pointed out the star chefs at work: Omar Flores (Driftwood) on his braised pork and chicharrón taco; Brian Luscher (The Grape) using beef, avocado, and crema sauce; Joe Baker (Le Cordon Bleu) combining skirt steak with fried squash bottoms; Patton Robertson (Five-Sixty by Wolfgang Puck) and his duck chorizo and ahi tuna; and Sheena Croft (Hannah’s Off the Square) coupling ossobucco with banana leaves. Flores won the cook-off (judged by, among others, Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly’s newly minted barbecue editor; and Jay Jerrier, Cane Rosso’s pizzaiolo extraordinaire).

Because, by now, my untamed hunger had pulled me back to the main attraction. The offerings were manifold: Velvet Taco suggested a California club: rotisserie chicken, bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato, goat cheese, and basil crema on a flour tortilla; Rusty Taco offered its surefire slow-cooked brisket and queso fresco; and La Nueva Fresh & Hot Tortilleria served its pastor, lamb barbacoa, tongue barbacoa, and guisado verde street tacos. Also cooking were Lazaranda, Revolver Taco Lounge, Urban Taco, and El Padrino. But I settled with the quickest option (quickest, meaning only 35 minutes): asada tacos at Chile Pepper Grill. Topped with pickled onions, green onion-in-oil, habanero sauce, and cilantro, they were moist, flavorful, and satisfying. I washed it down with a couple of the ubiquitous samples of Topo Chico sparkling mineral water, while listening to the folksy, vibraphone-laced tunes of the Venetian Sailors.

In the end, only one thing remained. Wiping my hands, I sauntered over to the diminutive paleta-man, and finished off the day with a creamy mango bar.

Farraz Khan is a D Magazine intern.