Top Taco is, and always has been, a different sort of food festival. Originally established in 2014 by DiningOut cofounders Jeff Suskin and Josh Dinar, the annual celebration quickly took on a life of its own, with each recurrent year proving yet again that there’s little else in life more worth honoring than tacos and agave. It was sorely missed in 2020, with this year’s event selling out its initial run of tickets in less than two days. “It does its own thing. I just sorta try to keep up with what it’s going to be,” grinned Suskin.
The excitement that surrounds the festival is palpable from well before the gates open until long after the 9:30 last call releases throngs of well-fed celebrants into the night to discuss, debate and immediately reminisce over the merits of the various contestants. This year’s event saw 50 local restaurants and bars dishing out the best renditions the cuisine has to offer, many of them being paired alongside agave brands both large and small to deliver bright concoctions that perfectly match both in flavor and spirit. There’s nothing tame to be found here, with the general vivacity landing more towards what could be expected at something like Coachella or Austin City Limits. Having run its initial two years at Sculpture Park, with another on Auraria Campus, Top Taco seems destined to outgrow whatever venue does its best to contain it, the whole thing glowing brighter than the sum of its spectacular parts. “The only thing I can take credit for is I didn’t get in the way,” Suskin said with a laugh.
Much of the event’s continued success lies in the massive orchestration going on behind the curtains. Suskin estimated that there were nearly 1,000 people on staff — between the participating restaurants, organizers, security and an enormous Green Program of over 60 volunteers who helped to separate waste — before any of the 4,000 guests even walked in the door. Music played from every corner, ranging from more traditional Latin fare on the main stage to reggaeton and other dance music that boomed from the Bud Light Boombox on the other side of the field. The wrestling ring — always full of brightly-clad luchadors and scowling villains in a state of constant flex — that sits at the center of the grounds’ main drag may be one of the clearest differentiators that sets Top Taco apart from other events, food or otherwise.
Despite the many difficulties that have been plaguing the restaurant industry at large — including widespread short-staffing and abundant closures — restaurant organizer Gaby Reyes said she had no trouble filling the dozens of slots that brought the festival to life. Restaurants, bars, food trucks and a few yet-to-open concepts from across the state served everything from traditional pastor to ahi tuna and smoked meats of every variety. Meat was provided by Colorado Native Foods with tortillas from Raquelitas, though restaurants are not required to use the products provided by the sponsors. “We do it in order to offset their costs,” said Reyes, noting that the all-inclusive ticket has many of the participants giving away enormous amounts of food.
While Top Taco distinctly favors being a jamboree over a competition, restaurants still bring their A-game, with many worthy contestants getting their just due in both the Judge’s and People’s Choice arenas. Some of this year’s top winners included Beltran’s Meat Market, Street Side Eats, North County, GQue BBQ and Lafayette’s Teocalli Cocina.
The return of Top Taco in 2021 was nothing short of an irresistible verification that tacos are indeed a force, requiring only a little channeling to bring out the best humanity has to offer.
A full list of winners can be found here.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.