10 lessons from Stu Helm’s Taco Takeover

Taco Takeover entries. Photo: Stu Helm

Taco Takeover entries. Photo: Stu Helm

Every month, we hear from Stu Helm, food writer + tour guide, where he gives us a monthly guide to Asheville’s food scene. 👏

I was recently lucky enough to be a judge at Kelly Denson’s 2018 Asheville Taco Takeover, where I sat in judgment of 10 tacos from various food makers in Asheville. Joining me at the judges’ table were Chefs Duane Fernandez, Suzy Salwa, and Hector Diaz, along with my fellow food writer, Jonathan Ammons.

The event was fun, well attended, and the taco offerings were all quite tasty, for the most part! There were a couple in the mix that flopped, but compared to other food competitions that I’ve judged, I’d have to say that a higher percentage of the entries than usual were great, good, or good enough. The Wing War is a total crapshoot, with sometimes more than half of the wings being less than awesome. Anyhoo, here’s how the Taco Takeover went down. Find out my 10 lessons of a great taco, and where to get them in Asheville here.

Brinehaus Meat + Provision

Brinehaus Meat + Provisions

1) AUX Bar / Brinehaus – People’s Choice

Yeah, man! My friend and one of my all-time favorite chefs, Steven Goff, almost always competes in food battles, and usually places or wins. This time around he did both! He won the People’s Choice, and tied for second place with the judges. My score sheet notes on his entry were simple: “That was awesome!” “Great textures and flavors,” and with a sentiment that turned out to be more profound than it seems at first blush, I added that the “shell was good.” (See #4).

2) REMEMBER

The Judges conduct a “blind” taste test, meaning, we don’t know who’s tacos are whose, whereas the people know exactly where their tacos come from. The judges are also required to try ALL of the tacos, whereas the people, of course, are not. Some folks put more value on the People’s Choice, but in many ways, the judges’ pick is more reliable. In some cases (such as the Brinehaus offering) they do more or less align with each other.

Sonora's entry

Sonora

3) Sonora Judge’s First Place

This relatively new downtown taqueria won first place with the judges, even though their taco smelled like feet and ass and a gym locker full of funk. Seriously, I took one whiff of this one, looked at Chef Suzie, and said, “Oh no.” Then I took a bite. And another bite, and another, and another, and even though I was already really FULL, because this was the EIGHTH taco I tasted that day, I crushed it entirely. As in, I ate the whole frickin’ thing. And it was not small! Lesson: Foot-ass-gym-funk is my favorite new taco flavor! It was the only taco that day that I gave a perfect 10! My notes said, “Great meat,” and “Proper amount of grease,” as well as, importantly, “Best tortilla!”

4) The Importance of a Good Tortilla

I’ve noted this in the past, and I’ll reiterate it here for all future competitors in taco challenges everywhere: YOUR TORTILLA CAN’T SUCK. Holy moly, people, a crappy, processed, commercial taco shell / tortilla is just never gonna cut it with the judges, or anyone else.

There were several tacos in the competition this year, as in past years, that had great fillings and toppings, but such low-grade tortillas that they immediately entered the losers’ circle. A taco is basically made up of three things, right? Fillings, toppings, shell. You gonna leave one third of your dish up to US Foods? Naw. C’mon now.

5) Taqueria Fast 2nd Place People’s Choice

This Weaverville venue is new to the competition circuit, and did great on their first time out! They tied for 2nd place with Brinehaus, and impressed the judges straight-away with – you guessed it – the tortilla. To be honest with you, I was less impressed with the taco overall than the other judges were, and my own score sheet only had two positive notes: “Good grease,” and “good tortilla.”

Both are super important, so they scored high on those areas. My notes also said, “too oniony,” which is really a personal preference, but yeah, it had a lot of onions. The tortilla on this one was small, about the size of a compact disc, and that’s traditional and very authentic, according to Chef Diaz, so he liked that aspect a lot, as did we all.

6) Lack of Diversity and Authenticity Are Issues

I remember the that the judges looked at each other at last year’s Battle of the Burger, and realized that we were all dudebros. No ladies at the table. At The Wing Wars, Asheville Citizen-Times food writer Mackensy Lundford is among our ranks, but even so, there tends to be a lack of diversity on judges’ panels in general, and among the participants and attendees at food competitions as well. #ISeeWhitePeople.

We have a long way to go before we’re as inclusive as we want and need to be, but we’re working on it. The judges’ table at the Taco Takedown was more diverse than ever, and Kelly had the rules of competition translated into Spanish to make it easier for Spanish-speaking chefs and venues to participate, which is not only important from a cultural point of view, but also, MORE BETTER TACOS! As I said, we have a long way to go, but realizing we’re doing it wrong is the first step toward doing it right.

Belly Up

Belly Up

7) Belly Up Truck 3rd Place overall

The first taco competition I ever judged was Let’s Taco ‘Bout It in 2016 at the Grey Eagle when Belly Up won with a very crazy taco that had raspberries and pork belly and a bunch of weird-awesomes on it. This year they took third place at the Taco Takeover, impressing all of the judges, including me with a taco that had “nice pickles” and “great meat” according to my notes. It was the 5th taco served to us, and I called it the “best so far!” Of course, I noted that the tortilla was “housemade,” which now I recall was the case back in 2016 as well, and one of the reasons they won that competition.

8) The Rankings

During this contest, the competing tacos were brought to the judges’ table on colorful plates that matched sections on our score sheets. We tasted each entry, and scored it on our own sheets, using a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being worst and 10 being best. At the end, we added up all of our scores, and the one with the highest score won! Simple as a pimple.

Tie scores are very rare, and we usually settle disputes by talking about it a little bit, trying to convince each other that one entry deserves a win more than and another, but this time, we did have a tie for 2nd place. I was against the tie score, I wanted to hash it out, but I was out-voted, and that’s okay, because otherwise, Belly Up wouldn’t have gotten the nod for 3rd place, which I had them ranked at on my own sheet.

9) Laughing Seed

This venue is an old school Asheville favorite, but I rarely see them at competitions. It makes sense that a vegan / vegetarian restaurant wouldn’t exactly get jazzed to show-up for the Battle of the Burger, Wing War, or Philly Fight, but when it comes to tacos, anything goes!

So yeah, they served us a taco made with non-animal protein, and the judges were into it! Chef Suzy sussed out that it was jackfruit, which was confirmed for us after the judging was over.

I really liked this one, and on my score sheet I wrote: “flavor was on point!” as well “very zesty,” and “beans were nice!” Unfortch, I also wrote “shell sucks.” They could have been contenders for sure, if not for that shell! Anyhoo, I do encourage the veg venues in Asheville to compete in the competitions when they can! Laughing Seed was in 4th place on my score sheet.

10) The Jammons Effect

Jonathan Ammons is a food writer for the Mountain Xpress and co-host of a radio show called Dirty Spoon. We often judge food competitions together, and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that he is usually the harshest judge at the table. In fact, last year he started practice of awarding NEGATIVE numbers to the worst entries in the Wing War, and while at first the rest of us were horrified by his actions, now we all do it. For reals. My notes simply said “so many things wrong.” Because of this phenomenon, any time someone else’s negative thoughts alter my own opinions, I call it the “Jammons Effect.” I gave one competitor in the Taco Takeover a negative score, and so did two other judges. It was the worst taco of the entire day. It got Jammonsed.

The deets:

  • Sonora Restaurant won first place with the judges.
  • Brinehaus Meat + Provisions won first place in the People’s Choice.
  • They tied for 2nd with Taqueria Fast at the judges’ table.
  • Belly Up Truck won third place with the judges.

The rest of the competitors were: UltraStar Multi-tainment Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Resort (no plate, white box only), Laughing Seed (dark blue plate), Salvage Station (light pink plate), Nique’s Kitchen (white plate) and Jack of the Wood (orange plate)

The Taco Takeover is in its infancy, and although it needs fine-tuning, it’s off to a great start and once Kelly gets it honed in, it should prove to be the final jewel in the Triple Crown of her All American Food Fights. Any restaurant, food truck, caterer, or cafe who can win both the Judges’ Vote and the People’s Choice in Kelly’s Wing War, Battle of the Burger and Taco Takeover will be much celebrated indeed!

Happy Friday, Asheville. Here’s hoping you get out to try some tacos today.

Stu + the AVLtoday team

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