Shane Finkelstein owns the Mexican restaurant Nacho Mama's (1000 S. Clearview Parkway, Suite 1016, 504-255-6201; www.nachomamasmexicangrill.com) in Elmwood and organized the inaugural Top Taco New Orleans (www.toptaconola.com) festival. The taco and tequila event at Spanish Plaza March 23 is modeled on a similar festival in Denver, Colorado. Finkelstein spoke with Gambit about Top Taco.
What inspired you to organize the festival?
Finkelstein: I always was interested in putting on festivals or events. I was donating tacos to Baton Rouge storm victims last summer and I saw how everyone was reacting, and I said to myself, "I really want to do something that will benefit my own hometown." My friends in Denver produced the Top Taco festival there, and I asked them if they would [help] me produce something here.
I wanted to do it for a charity, whereas in Denver it's a for-profit event. I wanted to work with a charity that wasn't someone that everyone was (donating to), and I wanted to do something on a smaller scale, so I found a woman named Teri Hrabovsky who runs this charity called One Heart NOLA (www.oneheartnola.com). They're a 100 percent volunteer-run organization that helps foster kids in the city. Specifically, they help kids that have aged out of the (foster care) system. In Louisiana, kids age out at 18, and most of these kids are still a junior or a senior in high school when this happens and they lose their state funding, which basically means they get kicked out onto the street. So [One Heart NOLA helps] these kids on a one-on-one basis. Last year their entire operating budget was $20,000, so they rely mostly on donations. But we're aiming to raise over $100,000 for them.
What can we expect from the event?
F: We chose to do it at Spanish Plaza because I love the space and it's not like some of these other festival venues. The owners of the Creole Queen (paddlewheeler) work with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and they donated the (boat) for our VIP (section). There will be an on-site silent auction and live music.
(The festival) sort of combines Boudin, Bourbon and Beer with Tales of the Cocktail. Each liquor supplier has a tent and each tent is paired with a couple of chefs or restaurants and a separate theme. For instance, El Silencio (tequila and mezcal) is paired with Cochon Butcher and Johnny Sanchez, and they're doing a Storyville theme. Hornitos is paired with The Velvet Cactus and Nacho Mama's, and they're doing a salsa dancing theme.
It's a competition, too. We'll have four different categories: top traditional taco, top creative taco, top traditional margarita and top creative tequila cocktail. (Guests) will be given voting chips and we'll also have judges voting.
Why tacos and tequila in New Orleans?
F: Since I own Nacho Mama's, having a taco festival was the right thing for me. I think people don't realize that a taco is an open slate: It's a corn tortilla filled with whatever you want to put in it. ... With our influx of Latin people in New Orleans, I think the market is ready to explode. We see it with new restaurants and high-end taco restaurants like Johnny Sanchez. I think that influx is going to create a market where we see more and more of that type of Latin food in New Orleans.
There's definitely a blend of Spanish food in our culture already. It's not a far reach to the other types of Latin food. I think it's going to be a really great opportunity for the people of New Orleans to sample the best of the best in one spot.
We have three really good barbecue restaurants that are (participating), and 10 restaurants that don't usually make tacos will make one-of-a-kind tacos, including Vincent's (Italian Cuisine), Chiba, Horn's, Cowbell and Namese. [event-1]