MUY BUENO! Garcia’s wins three People’s Choice Awards at third annual Atascadero Tamale Festival

At last weekend’s third annual Atascadero Tamale Festival, local eatery Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant won all three People’s Choice categories out of 29 tamale vendors from all over San Luis Obispo County and the far reaches of Southern California, including Hemet, Riverside, Ontario and Santa Ana. This is the second year in a row Garcia’s has won the ‘People’s Choice’ award. The people voted Garcia’s number one in ‘Sweet,’ ‘Gourmet,’ and ‘Traditional’ categories.

Shav N’ Flav’, of Paso Robles, took first place in two of three of the ‘Judge’s Favorite’ categories: ‘Gourmet’ and ‘Traditional’ and La Luz del Mundo of Paso Robles took ‘Judge’s Favorite’ first place in the ‘Sweet Tamales’ category.

The City of Atascadero’s event coordinator Terrie Banish said this year’s Tamale Festival was the largest turnout on record. The City estimates approximately 15,000 people attended, tripling last year’s attendance.

“We did pretty good, you know? There were so many vendors there,” said Carlos Garcia, who owns Garcia’s with four family members. He said it was intimidating looking around at all the vendors from Orange County with big, elaborate set-ups, decorated with all their contest trophies.

“We were thinking, ‘We’re not gonna win,’” Garcia said. “I mean, we know we make good tamales but it’s a big competition.”

Garcia focused his restaurant’s tamales on more meat, less masa. Garcia’s ‘Rajas’ (jalapeño and cheese) tamale won for the traditional People’s Choice and pollo tamale in a banana leaf won for ‘Gourmet.’

Steven Rodriguez Sullivan, a.k.a ‘Taco Vato,’ the chef behind Paso Robles’ Shav N’ Flav, winner of two judges awards, said his tamales were not up to his usual high standard at judging time. He said they weren’t done all the way and were soggy and mushy.

“I didn’t have enough time to put enough love into it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes before judging, Sullivan had to trash the tamales he was prepared to give to the judges. He was ready to give up.

“I was about to cry,” he said.

So he let go of any chance of winning the contest — in any case he’d already won plenty of awards (including winning the People’s Choice Award for the last Taco Day on Traffic Way Contest), so he just focused on making his customers happy at the festival. 

Sullivan said the decision to come up with a late entry was not his own.

“My brother said, ‘you better turn something in’ I pull out my carnitas rancheros out and slathered them up and put my sauces over it and covered it with cheese and put it in the melter and sent it off, and lo and behold – pretty cool!” he said.

Sullivan wasn’t expecting to win two awards at all.

La Luz Del Mundo, a Christian Church in Paso Robles, won the Judge’s Choice for Sweet Tamales. The group posted on Facebook, “Tamale Festival was a success! All the brothers and sisters came together to get the work done.”

Their booth was cheerful and helpful, with plenty of La Luz Del Mundo members pitching in to serve the thousands of tamale tasters.

More than 50 vendors lined Sunken Gardens in addition to the almost 30 tamale vendors, including Sugar Lips Mini Donuts of SLO, serving paper cones of mini donuts with chocolate syrup, Marston’s 101 of Atascadero was selling bacon wrapped jalapeño poppers.

Of course the tamales were the biggest draw at $3 each and $30 per dozen. Most tamale vendors had lines that wrapped around the street and grass.

“We had sales triple that of the year before,” Banish said, adding that most of their tamale vendors left with little to no tamales to pack home. Locals were buying tamales for their freezers, and enjoyed the tamales for the next week.

Mariachi Mexicanisimo and Los Gatos Locos provided entertainment on the steps of City Hall and a crowd of spectators watched in awe as the Grupo Folklorico Dancers of Paso Robles performed, following a breathtaking entrance from the Mexican Dancing Horses and soloist Manuel Enrique and his horse.

Mara Sanchez of Paso Robles, who remembers knowing only two other Mexican families when she grew up in Atascadero in the 60s and 70s, said she was feeling “proud to be Latina” at the festival and gratified that her little hometown had progressed into holding a tamale festival.

“It was amazing!” Sanchez said. “But, it went beyond the incredible prancing horses and delicious tamales. In the political climate that we find ourselves in — talk of ‘building walls’ and ‘send them back to Mexico’ — to see my rich culture… celebrated for our music, our food, our dancing, really touched me. My dad was in heaven. The whole experience, for him, took him back to his childhood. The folklorico dances that he used to do as a child, and the mariachi music that we grew up with — he knew every word to every song!”

A crowd favorite, and reoccuring highlight of the festival, was the tamale eating contest presented by Que Pasa Mexican Café. Isaac Torres took first place in the ‘12 & Over’ category, finishing five tamales in less than three minutes. Benjamin Romero, age 11, of Atascadero, won first place in the ‘Under 12 Years of Age’ category. Romero beat out his competitors by eating a tamale the fastest of all.

The 2018 judges panel included Atascadero Mayor Tom O’Malley, Mayor Pro Tem Roberta Fonzi, City Council members Heather Moreno, Brian Sturtevant and Charles Bourbeau; Mayor Steve Martin of Paso Robles; along with Atascadero Park & Recreation Commissioners; Atascadero Chamber Board Members; City of Atascadero Fire Chief Casey Bryson; City of Atascadero Police Commander Joe Allen; The Tribune Features Editor Sarah Linn; Andy Morris from KVEC 920 AM Talk Radio and Dick Mason with KPRL 1230 AM Talk Radio.

“We would not be able to do an event without all (of our sponsors)!” Banish said. “Due to the growth we are experiencing, you can anticipate more tamales, entertainment and contests next year!” 

Banish added that she hopes tamale lovers will save the date for next year’s festival on Jan. 19, 2019.

© 2019-Atascadero News

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