Tucson Taco Madness: The last taco face-off

Pima Post

This March, we had a tournament for the books. We witnessed upsets, future stars shining and legends coming up short.

The 2022 Tucson Taco Tournament has now concluded, and a new champion has been crowned.

Last night’s battle went down to the wire and culminated in a grueling journey for everyone who played.

Tacos del Rancho and El Tacoson had to reach deep and put together their best tacos on the plate for one last time. It took a hard-fought and complete effort from both, but there could only be one winner.

El Tacoson represented the South Central Conference with an al pastor taco, which is most emblematic of Mexico City. While Tacos del Rancho came out from the North Conference with a carne asada taco — the signature taco of the state of Sonora.

These tacos have completely different styles. Yet, they are equal symbols of gastronomic pride for their respective conferences, and they did not let down their fanbases in the final match.

The Final: Tacos del Rancho (carne asada taco) vs. El Tacoson (al pastor taco)

After a month of eating tacos, we knew what each taco would bring to the table last night.

Al pastor tacos protein focuses on pork enveloped with a corn tortilla as the foundation. And their “powers” (salsas and toppings) play to the strength of the pork flavor profile with sweetness, acidity and cutthroat spiciness.

Carne asada tacos’ protein is the focal point and bedrock of their style. The meat has to be the centerpiece and the flour tortilla has to be buttery to contrast its balanced saltiness.

Powers for carne asada tacos can’t take away from the meat. The salsas and toppings (like salsa borracha) have to be complemented for the smoky flavor profile and add taste layers.

The tradition of enjoying these styles of tacos in social gatherings — or after — is pretty much the only thing in common they share as tacos.

As competitors and regional pride, they both carried themselves like champions and were ready to leave the committee’s stomachs full.

Tacos del Rancho had been rolling out almost perfect tortillas every round until this one. The physicality and buttery taste tones weren’t there. And El Tacoson countered with the perfect sized tortilla — it didn’t break and was flavorful.

At this point, both taco shops knew they would have to adjust on the fly and eliminate mistakes because they are the elite of the elite.

Tacoson had success against every taco it faced by playing complementary taco making. Its salsa and toppings playbook was one of the most fundamentally sound all tournament long and one of the only few complete ones.

It had a classic scheme and executed well the concept of matching the tortilla with quintessential salsas and toppings.

Perhaps this is why this al pastor taco was such a great matchup against del Rancho’s taco. Surprisingly for a carne asada taco, it had made its salsas and toppings a focal point in its gameplan.

Usually, carne asada programs focus on only cabbage, green and red salsa, pickled red onions and “aguamole” (guacamole sauce).

But del Rancho added a couple more salsa variations, including a salsa borracha, that had been overwhelming the other tacos’ salsas.

However, both finals contenders had the best salsas and toppings in the tournament. And they were also even all game long last night.

Basketball — at the highest levels and brightest stages — comes down to who can make a shot. This is what the whole game is about: Who can put the ball in the basket and score more points than the other team.

Tacos are no different. You can have a great tortilla and add “all the powers” (all toppings and salsas), but the most important part of the taco game is the protein.

It is the piece that you build your whole taco around. 

Salsas and tortillas are meant to enhance and highlight the protein, to give a taco textured layers of flavor. Each bite has to aspire to connect the tortilla to a salsa, then to a veggie and finally pass it to the meat for the exclamation point.

Del Rancho had the best protein game in the tournament. 

If this carne asada was a jumpshot, it would be most comparable to the future basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Durant’s jumpshot. It was textbook, it was unstoppable and it was almost perfect.

With the tournament on the line, the art of taco making was brought to its most essential and basic principle — the protein.

And this was taco-making at the highest level. Tacoson had an amazing showing of how al pastor should be made. It was flavorful, the adobo balanced the spices perfectly and it was braised (as it should) in a “trompo,” a vertical spit.

Pineapples sandwiched the pork slabs speared on the cone-like shape a trompo has and had all the savory juiciness al pastor meat should have.

Unfortunately, this gladiator of a competitor, who consistently had the most complete taco, was edged out by del Rancho’s carne asada. 

Grilling carne asada is an art form in Sonora, and many places have tried to experiment with the approach unsuccessfully.

Some play around with what cut of meat to use, don’t use a grill or experiment with different meat marinades. But del Rancho’s carne asada possessed the iconic Sonoran flavor and characteristics.

When both of these meats were going bite-for-bite at the end, Tacoson wasn’t able to put away the tournament. Both of these meats were made in their traditional style, but in isolation plays, del Rancho had the better taste.

Bigger, yet thin, slices of meat and leaner cuts of pineapple would’ve given Tacoson’s al pastor more chances to accentuate the juices of the adobo. But in the end, del Rancho was able to capitalize on the opportunity and win the 2022 Tucson Taco Tournament.

All tacos and all the places that competed are elite in their own way. They all stayed true to what their respective style of taco is and should be proud of their contributions that make Tucson an UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Especially one with such a rich and culturally diverse food scene.

Final Rankings

  1. Tacos del Rancho
  2. El Tacoson (inside American Eat Co.)
  3. Carnitas La Yoca
  4. El Berraco
  5. El Chinito Gordo
  6. BOCA Tacos y Tequila
  7. Polo’s Taqueria: call (520) 486-8162 for hours and location
  8. Cocteleria La Palma
  9. Los Tacos Apson
  10. El Taco Rustico
  11. Taco Fish Tucson
  12. Maico Restaurant Mexican Food
  13. Karamelo King
  14. Baja Tacos
  15. Taqueria Juanitos
  16. Ensenada Street Food