SAACA celebrates Mexican food, fun and flavor

Cyrus Norcross | The Daily Wildcat

The Fermented Tea Company pours tea for the guest at the 23 Miles of Mexican Food Festival on June 16.

The Southern Arizona Arts and Culture Alliance (SAACA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the creation, preservation and advancement of the arts, hosts several events throughout the year that highlight Tucson culture, from music to food. It held the third annual Tucson 23 Miles of Mexican Food festival at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa on June 16 which featured food, live music, art and drinks.

This event celebrates The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food, one of Visit Tucson’s main campaigns for the tourism industry, according to Shelby Scheer, the operations manager of SAACA. Visit Tucson partnered with SAACA to help represent Mexican culture in an interdisciplinary format.

“We are celebrating the culinary arts, we are bringing out large scale Mexican restaurants that are well-known and also bringing a lot of smaller ones that have never done an event before and haven’t had this kind of exposure,” Scheer said.

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The event aimed to drive business back to the restaurants and vendors after the event. It also featured hand-painted Mexican murals,  baile folklórico dance performed by  Ballet Folklorico Tapatio, and mariachis. 

Three Wells brewery serves their drinks at the 23 Miles of Mexican Food Festival, which are made from agave and prickly pear fruit.

“This year I am very excited about the incorporation of the large scale murals and having wonderful artists such as Patricia Silva with Sol Design Studio come out,” Scheer said. “The other aspect this year that we are really proud of is [that] we commissioned a painting. Ruben Moreno is the artist, [he] created the official Tucson 23 painting and it encapsulates everything that we want to show about this festival and Mexican culture itself.”

Brent Gibbs, the bachelor of fine arts theater arts director at the UA, was in attendance and said that the event was “a great thing to do in the middle of the summer.” Gibbs said he enjoyed the variety and quality of the festival. 

Dozens of Tucson’s Mexican cuisines from all over town were in attendance at the festival, with the message of collaboration and innovation, according to Scheer.

Carlos Ruiz, beverage manager at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, said that there were individuals that may not have the opportunity of trying food from these restaurants on a day-to-day basis because of their location but this event caters to having them all in one place. 

“For Mexican food restaurants to come out here and show that they’re passionate about their food they want people to try is great,” Ruiz said. “It’s an awesome opportunity that we get to showcase and be a part of.” 

The La Estrella Bakery serve baked goods at the 23 Miles of Mexican Food festival on June 16.

Ruiz said that the event is a partnership in cultivating the food and beverage culture not only in restaurants in Tucson but throughout the surrounding communities as well.

One way they keep that culture is through the 5:30 tequila toast, Arriba Abajo, that was a partnership of food, drink and storytelling that gives people an opportunity to see Tucson and its spirits, according to Ruiz, who is in charge of Arriba Abajo.

The festival also showcased La Estrella Bakery, Boca Tacos y Tequila, Reforma, Rollies Mexican Patio and Gringo Grill and Cantina. Drink vendors were also in attendance at the event, including local beer brewing companies, local tequila, Tito’s Vodka and compliments of the resort bar. 

Samuel Jimenez, baker at La Estrella Bakery, said he sees this event as “a representation of Mexican culture and tradition.” He said the chance to market its pastries gives the bakery an opportunity to show the community what it can make through tasting of their food.

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“It’s good to get the Mexican cuisine out there, our food is all natural ingredients, all organic and we are looking to spread this culture because it’s great showing Mexican food in a fine dining setting,” said Enrique Tribolet, sous chef at Reforma.

UA alumni, Ryan and Morgan Matchett, embrace each other while the band 'The Regulars' plays in the background. 

“Tucson has a lot of flavor here that needs to be discovered to be in this community, and to be a part of that is really special,” said Isaiah Lopez, sous chef at Boca Tacos.

The Mexican food restaurants were excited to spread the word on their delicious variety, according to Lopez.

Morgan Matchett, a UA journalism alum of ‘04, said she enjoyed sampling different dishes. “It is wonderful to taste all of the different varieties of the Mexican food that you can get around Tucson,” she said. 

Matchett is a Tucson local and was familiar with the Mexican food selection but really enjoyed the ceviche. There were several types of ceviche at the event and it was “absolutely wonderful,” according to Matchett. 

She is a friend of Scheer and shared that, because of her, Matchett is now involved in the arts world doing fundraising at the Drawing Studio as the development director.

Compost Cats were also in attendance, helping guests separate recyclables and trash in hopes of collecting and creating zero waste. Samantha Normandia, an ecology and evolutionary biology major, explained that Compost Cats is a student-run, student-led organization of the UA.

Gracie Jessop sings a jazz song with 'The Regualrs' during the 23 Miles of Mexican Food Festival on June 16.

“We have about 15 students and everyone does a little bit of everything, whether its farm managing or just being on the farm and business detailing, also event planning and communications – everyone is super connected,” Normandia said.

She explained how excited her and her team were to be working at such a large festival, as this was their first time at the Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival. They made an agreement with SAACA to be composting at all of their events, according to Normandia. 

They have worked at SACCA’s previous SAVOR event at Tucson Botanical Gardens and have a partnership with San Xavier Co-op Farm, where they will create compost following these events.

“Seeing everything come full circle, seeing the moving elements, there is a presentable aspect to it,” Ruiz said. “It’s not just thrown together; it is a great organization that is able to showcase all of these different elements.”

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