On Thursday, June 27 over 40 of Denver’s best taco specialists gathered in the field behind Stanley Marketplace to compete for one of the city’s most coveted titles. This extraordinary battle royale set under the heat of summer’s first real arrival was a true clash of the Titans, served up on tortillas, and washed down with enough agave to make Mayahuel herself blush — this was Top Taco.

The sold-out event saw 5,000 hungry guests sauntering from stall to stall enjoying bites from some of the great minds in modern taco-cuisine. Expert chefs pulled out all the stops, bringing their top game to tournament-ready heights. The level of excellence and sheer volume of quality was downright overwhelming. The handled plate-cup hybrid each guest received upon entry would routinely be stacked almost to the point of collapse. No one escaped the deeply satisfying feeling that can only come from having engaged in genuine gourmandizing.

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One of the great themes of this year’s event was the widespread use of funky animal parts and game. Stanley Beer Hall’s sublime bison and beef lengua, Tacos with Altitude’s grasshopper, Los Chingones lamb barbacoa, Range’s elk, SOL’s pig ear chicharron and Maskao’s alligator all revealed the audience’s general eagerness to indulge in adventurous eating. Being bite-sized, tacos have always been one of the best avenues to try new ingredients, and chefs took full advantage in their unconventional approach.

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While the event generally functioned as an unbridled bacchanal, there was still a contest to be had. At 9 p.m. voting — via a well set up system of easy to find digital kiosks — concluded, and by 9:30 attendees were invited to the stage to watch the winners accept their prizes. Five categories — traditional, creative, vegetarian, cocktail and the exclusive VIP barbecue — were assessed both by a panel of professionals and the crowd. In the traditional category, judges declared Los Dos Portillos number one for their barbacoa au jus, with Dos Santos and El Cazo Cocina y Cantina taking second and third. The people thought differently — Rio Grande took gold, with Stanley Beer Hall and Tamayo following suit.

Veggie-wise the judges saw Dos Santos, Carrera’s and McDevitt Taco Supply fit, with the people deeming Tacos With Altitude, SOL Mexican Cocina and Teal Taco worthy of the prize. Creatively Oskar Blues, J Street and McDevitt got nods from the panel, with SOL, Bits and Pieces con Cerveza and Taco Choi winning over the crowd. As far as cocktails were concerned Billy’s Inn, El Camino and Marg’s Taco Bistro impressed the pros, with Tap and Burger Concepts, SOL Mexican Cocina and Stoney’s Bar and Grill wooing the pack. Stoney’s 24 Carrot combined fresh pressed carrot juice, granny smith apple, ginger, lime and agave for one of the most refreshing drinks of the whole affair.

The VIP section brought together a group of local pitmasters to serve up one of the great hybrids of our time — barbecue tacos. Rolling Smoke, Gque, Sugarfire Smoke House, SMOK, Hank’s Texas BBQ and Woodhill Small Batch BBQ all delivered some of the tenderest meat of the festival. Hank’s won the professional vote and Rolling Smoke took the peoples’ choice. Both teams agreed that Sugarfire Smoke House and Woodhill Small Batch BBQ belonged in second and third. Woodhill’s OneHipMex taco combined slow smoked brisket, fresh pico de gallo, elote crema, peach-apricot habanero sauce and cotija for one of the festival’s most mouth-watering treats.

There was not a lot of consensus between the crowd and the judges — ultimately revealing how delightfully neck-in-neck the competition was. At a festival this size, and with so much quality food, the fact that there was a wide distribution of awards was neither surprising nor upsetting. While rivalry was fierce, the fiesta was good-natured. Both attendees and purveyors were too busy having a good time to get too swept up in minor issues like victory. While it’s fun to wear the crown, tacos are decidedly egalitarian. Either way, people toasted to their triumph and to their defeat.

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Throwing a party based tacos them does not take a degree in party planning — but the organizers managed to create something truly sublime. The grounds were set up for maximum enjoyment — as many as four separate dance parties could be found at any one time. But while the spread helped fan out the massive crowd, lines to get in and grab bites were often long — even during VIP. Luckily most booths moved fast and if one didn’t, it was easy to walk to a short line and steal a taco or some tequila to enjoy while you wait.

The crowd —  many of whom were decked out in some kind of taco attire — was a real who’s who of the city’s most fun and outrageous characters. A throng of Denver’s most jubilant party-people mingled, munched and caroused together — and while there was a great disparity in the makeup of the crowd — the camaraderie was as palpable as the spice that wafted in every direction. In a time where the powers that be are doing their best to divided us, Top Taco proved, yet again, that tacos are the unifying principle.

All photography by Alden Bonecutter

Editor’s Note: 303 Magazine was a media sponsor of Top Taco

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