Tucson Taco Madness: A grilling duel in the Sonoran desert

Pima Post

Carne asada is not just another menu item in the Mexican state of Sonora. It is a tradition and a symbol of cultural pride.

Sonora is mainly a livestock farming and agricultural state. It’s a state known for its top-quality beef — and consequently — its carne asada.

People have their grilling technique and taco construction philosophy that’s passed from generation to generation or friendship to friendship.

Although, two cardinal rules are followed by every Sonoran and perfected by some to become oracle-level “taqueros.”

  1. The meat (diezmillo or arrachera) should only be salted and not marinated. Marinating is frowned upon and is the mark of a lack of carne asada expertise.
  2. Carne asada tacos are to be made with flour tortillas, full stop. 

Arizona is the neighboring state with Sonora. And Tucson is only an hour away from the carne asada state. And for many years, the tradition and wisdom of making proper carne asada has been alive and well in the Old Pueblo.

This year, we will find out who has mastered the style and if it will be enough to live in taco lore as the champion of the Tucson Taco Tournament.

Everyone expected the Carne Asada Taco Division to be a gauntlet going into the tournament.

It is home to iconic Tucson institutions like Tacos Apson and a modern powerhouse in BOCA Tacos y Tequilas.

However, once the meat was thrown onto the grill and the salsa started pouring, the cliche “this is why we play the game” rang true throughout the week.

A once-dominant division in the North Conference — because of the proximity to Sonora — was more top-heavy than expected.

Tacos Apson can still fold a taco with the best of them, but its tortilla and protein (although solid) couldn’t keep up. And Karamelo King (a fan favorite in Tucson) put up good numbers in the tortilla and protein box scores but neglected their powers.

In what was a classic matchup that came down to the wire, BOCA proved to everyone that their recognition is earned and Tacos del Rancho announced itself to the taco world at large.

Chef Maria Mazon (BOCA’s founder) was born in Tucson but raised in Sonora, Mexico — has been featured on the Food Network and is one of the most famous culinary personalities in Tucson.

Yet, Chef Mazon does not rest in her accomplishments. She is still putting out great tacos. 

The tortilla and protein at BOCA are as delicious as they are authentic — the salt in the meat merges perfectly with the almost buttery tortilla.

BOCA makes a traditional carne asada and uses traditional flour tortillas, but has tried to exploit the inefficiencies in the powers category with creative and outside-the-box salsas.

In basketball when teams try to exploit the 3-point shot, it is said that those teams “live and die by the three,” and BOCA lives and dies by its salsas.

There is merit in trying something different to win, especially if it’s done creatively and well. But as history has proved time and time again … you just have to take what the defense gives you and execute.

Tacos del Rancho has only been around since September 2021, but with veteran carne asada leadership and an overwhelming versatility in the powers game, it was able to come out on top of the division and advance to the next round.

The powers aspect of the taco game is largely overlooked in Tucson this year and is what should make Tacos del Rancho a contender for years to come. 

It hoists a lineup that is fundamentally sound and fresh, paying close attention to the elements of a good salsa bar: cabbage, radish, pickled red onion, green salsa, red salsa, extra spicy salsa, cucumber, lime and grilled onions.

Most importantly, just like Devin Booker and Chris Paul brought back the midrange shot, Tacos del Rancho brought back the iconic “salsa borracha.”

Salsa borracha is a staple in the tradition of Sonoran carne asadas. 

The foundation consists of grilled tomatoes, green chilis and onions. Then smashing them and mixing in beer, salt and lime — although everyone adds their wrinkles to this recipe.

A well-executed salsa borracha can elevate a great carne asada taco to an all-timer. And Tacos del Rancho proved to be a student of the game with its version of it.

This was the catalyst to put them over the edge against BOCA, but their carne asada is also great. It is salted and grilled to perfection, and the tortilla is buttery but does not compromise its strength to hold everything together.

An upstart taco place took a storied division by storm and advanced to the North Conference Finals. But in order to advance to the tournament finals, it will have to prove itself once more against the winner of the Fish & Shrimp Taco Division — a scrappy collection of delicious tacos.