We rounded the corner at Tijuana’s jai alai palace and encountered a booze-soaked spectacle: twin rows of stalls as far as the eye could see dispensing unlimited pours of tequila. This was the ninth annual Tijuana Tequila Expo and the primary reason we returned to the city for a second time in four months.
Before we rushed the heavily branded booths, Bill Esparza – a tequila expo veteran and Street Gourmet L.A. founder – dispensed a word of advice: “In general, the hotter the girl, the worse the tequila.” No surprise, the tequila brands hired dolled-up tequila ambassadors to distract the crowd from the harsh realities of astringent, second-rate tequilas. We more or less managed to avoid the sirens’ song to pinpoint the festival’s best tequilas.
We were almost instantly greeted by a piña, the prized pineapple-shaped core of the agave plant.
Day One started with a pour of añejo from Tequila Los Tres Tonos, a 100% blue agave distiller. The añejo was far from punishing, and the reposado was even lighter and sweeter.
Cava de Oro’s vendor cut off a piece of roasted agave, a fibrous swath that resembled sugar cane and had molasses sweetness along the lines of sweet potato.
This is the form that agave takes prior to extraction and fermentation, which Cava de Oro also presented.
Tequila Chaucos – a demonic tequila producer – yielded a reposado with a long, spicy finish. This was one of the festival’s top tastes.
El Agave blanco was minty tequila with a spicy finish. The brand’s owner also owns a vaunted San Diego tequila bar called El Agave and apparently has the second largest tequila collection on the planet.
El Viejo Luis pummeled my palate with a blended tamarind margarita that utilized a chile-salt rim and aggressively tart flavor.
Tequila Clase Azul delivered a reposado with honey sweetness and golden color. The brand was also a leading example of the artistry possible in tequila bottles.
Volcán de Tierra Mia produced a golden, smooth reposado that challenged the demon for festival supremacy. This brand adhered to Bill’s aforementioned code, with an older gentleman with a no-nonsense demeanor pouring his product.
Several bloggers fell for Pulque Directo de Hidalgo, big jugs of sour fermented maguey that also came in walnut and guava flavors. The viscosity was off-putting, but The Glutster drank it like water.
Bill passed around a glass of Tequila de la Vibora, a $5 pour of leathery tequila produced by coiling a snake at the base of the glass jar. After drinking cobra wine at Vietnam’s Cu Chi Tunnels, this didn’t faze me.
His other gift to the group wasn’t as menacing: La Coculense rompope candies from Jalisco, creamy eggnog candies surrounded by a thin but unnecessary coating of sugar.
An Oaxacan food stall offered tastes of chapulines, fried crickets that were thankfully overpowered by salt and lime. The Glutster compared them to salty raisins.
Another culinary hit: Gorditas de Nata, griddled cream-whipped pancakes.
My trip to the candy stand was high yield, highlighted by tamarindo dulce – sugary tamarind paste balls, seeds and all. They also sold two types of coconut macaroons – brittle snow white and sugary yellow.
Tijuana Tequila Expo IX (day two) started with a pair of blancos: Volcán de Tierra Mia and Clase Azul, which had a more aggressive flavor
We stopped by the Oaxaca food stall for salted, roasted garlic cloves, a pungent but compelling snack treat.
It was back to the sweets booth for tamarindo enchilado – chile-dusted tamarind balls – and milk fudge, a variation on dulce de leche. The bees also seemed to enjoy the sweets, since they were swarming the booth.
Oaxaca Sabor y Tradition supplied an unspectacular chicken tamale slathered with mole negro.
It was back to El Agave for their reposado and anejo, with neither comparing to the previous day’s minty blanco. My first tequila expo concluded with an Aretta anejo, which was chilled but still harsh.
Tijuana Tequila Expo IX was a great learning opportunity, especially for under $6 per day. There were even some surprise snacks that were new to me, but won’t get old. It’s possible that Tequila Expo X is in my future.