Casa Escobar Gorditas

Gorditas from Casa Escobar will be among the fare on the menu at this weekend’s Tucson 23.

Tucson takes its Mexican food seriously. Whether it’s from a sprawling restaurant or a taco truck tucked alongside the street, Mexican food is part of the region’s identity. This Saturday, locals and visitors alike can experience an event entirely devoted to Tucson’s most famous food.

Named for the Visit Tucson campaign marking the “best 23 miles of Mexican food” in the U.S., the Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival brings together over 30 local restaurants, breweries and distilleries for one night of delicious eats.

“Tucson’s got such a rich tapestry of places to eat,” said Daniel Gibson, Visit Tucson director of communications. “Even in the Mexican food space there’s… all this amazing food that spans all of Mexico and the sort of wide variety of Mexican food that exists. We just want to showcase that as much as possible.”

Festivalgoers will snack on samples from eateries like El Charro and sip on drinks from distilleries like Three Wells Distilling Company at the JW Marriott Tucson Star Pass Resort and Spa. All the while, they’ll listen to music from local musicians like Mariachi Herradura de Tucson.

This year, the festival’s third since Visit Tucson and the Southern Arizona Arts and Culture Alliance teamed up to create the event, the party starts early with Taste the 23 Week. From June 10-16, participating restaurants will offer “23”-themed deals to mark the celebration.

Gretchen Harper, SAACA marketing and communications director, said the weeklong celebration allows smaller family-owned restaurants that may not have the capacity to produce enough samples for the expected crowd of 800 to 1000 to still participate in the festival.

“We wanted to be able to include them still in this celebration,” Harper said. “The idea is to extend it right into the restaurant so they can be a part of it without having to actually be there for the huge event we’re doing Saturday night.”

Gibson said the week also offers a chance for people to participate in the festival and try something new even if they can’t make the main event.

“I think people don’t always realize you get into a rut, you go to the same places all the time,” Gibson said. “There’s so many incredible restaurants in Tucson.”

The opportunity to explore all the different types of Mexican cuisine the city has to offer is especially helpful for restaurants looking to expand their customer base. 

For newer restaurants, it’s a chance to get their name out there. Mateo Otero, owner and chef at Rollies Mexican Patio, said he hopes to grow the customer base for the restaurant, which opened in December 2017. He looks forward to networking and having fun when he brings mini enchiladas topped with tinga to the festival.

Judith de la Rosa, manager of Perfecto’s Restaurant, said the restaurant’s appearance at last year’s festival boosted their exposure to people who may not have heard of them previously.

De la Rosa is excited to meet new people again when Perfecto’s brings its birria, mini-chimis and tamales to this year’s event.

“It’s kind of to show off what we’re made of and what’s good here,” she said. “We’re just excited for people to try it.”

While food takes center stage at the event, festivalgoers can take a break between bites to explore local art and music.

Ballet Folklorico Tapatio will dance at the entryway, and festivalgoers can make paper flowers to wear in their hair or around their wrists. Five local-made large-scale chalk murals will be on display in a mural gallery.

“Part of the great thing about Tucson’s culture is how much it’s inspired by our borderlands’ presence,” Gibson said. “Involving painters and musicians and dance—it just creates like a bigger, broader experience. We want people to definitely have the opportunity to get their money’s worth and have a great time.”

That cultural exploration stretches throughout the entire weekend with pre-festival activities at the hotel, which offers special room rates for the weekend. The foodie frenzy starts a night early with a celebrity chef five-course dinner featuring chicken tinga street tacos by Seis Kitchen chef Erika Bostick. Saturday morning starts out with a Mexican brunch, and the hotel will hold culinary education classes on mole, Mexican wines, ceviche and tequila infusion throughout the day.

A cornucopia of foodie events, coupled with the artsy offerings at the festival, highlights Tucson’s unique culture.

“It seems to have been a real great epicenter of culture that has settled here over the last century, two-century-plus timeframe, so this really strong, very, very well-defined Southwestern culture has developed here,” Harper said.

She called food the great equalizer, where people come together and experience different cultures, but added that the festival makes sure to include arts integration as well for the whole experience.

“It’s a way to get just a little taste of what southern Arizona culture is,” Harper said. “It’s certainly just a perfect representation, like a little microcosm, of what happens here in Tucson.”

The Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival is 6 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16 at 3800 W. Starr Pass Blvd. Admission to the all-ages event is $60 for 18 and over, $20 for ages 5-17 and free for ages 5 and under. General admission is $75 on the day of the event. Purchase pre-sale tickets for general admission online at saaca.thundertix.com/events. Find prices for pre-festival activities online at saaca.org/tucson23.html. 

Ava Garcia is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.

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