In Arizona, the ability to make a good salsa is a point of pride. At My Nana’s Best-Tasting Salsa Challenge, aficionados can put their skills to the test against others and give back to charity.
In its 35th year, the annual salsa competition is Saturday, April 13, at Sloan Park in Mesa.
The festival is sponsored by the Arizona Hemophilia Association, which works with patients with bleeding disorders and their families.
Proceeds support the organization’s Camp HONOR, a summer camp for children with bleeding disorders.
With general admission, festival goers receive unlimited samples of chips and salsa.
VIP tickets gain guests access to a special VIP area, a catered meal, unlimited salsa and chip samples and four drink vouchers.
Along with the salsa competition, the festival boasts a kids’ zone with inflatables and live performances from Valley musicians, bands and salsa dancers.
During the salsa challenge, contestants compete in mild, hot and “anything goes” categories. “Anything goes” is for salsas made with ingredients such as mango, pineapple or cranberries.
Bartenders will participate in the Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix-Off, in which their beverages are paired and auctioned with sports memorabilia, vacations and event tickets.
What makes the challenge interesting to most tasters is the variety of flavors.
“That’s the cool thing about the salsa challenge, is there is definitely something for everyone,” said Tori Katz, business-development specialist for the Arizona Hemophilia Association. “It’s not just hot salsas that you’re trying all day, and then you can’t feel your tongue for days afterward.”
Contestants are required to make 13 gallons of salsa on-site, and judges look at qualities such as taste, aroma and consistency.
“I know from our head judge, I’ve heard him say so many times, that consistency is very key to him,” Katz said. “He looks to make sure every single bite is the same instead of having some really soupy and some really chunky.”
Tasters may vote on their favorites by donating money to the People’s Choice category.
In honor of the 35th anniversary, winners will receive $3,500 in prize money, as well as special prizes like Arizona Diamondbacks tickets. Individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations may enter multiple salsas.
Each year, a few spots go to families affected by blood disorders.
“It’s definitely one of those things where you have to get a team together,” Katz said. “You can’t just do it by yourself.”
Some participants entered the challenge for more than 15 years.
Lisa Denton of Salsa Patron helped her father at the challenge and continued the tradition after he passed away three years ago.
“We would go with him, have fun doing it, hang out and help him, and then it turned into our thing,” Denton said.
Her father began by making salsa to take to friends’ parties.
Denton uses her father’s recipes with a few tweaks. She works to make her salsas unique by adding hard-to-find peppers.
“Salsa is pretty labor intensive,” Denton said. “It’s not a quick, fast, easy thing to make when you are making big volumes.”
She has taken salsa-making to another level by selling her five salsas at local farmers’ markets. She, her family and her friends make about 160 quarts of salsa a week.
The challenge inspires contestants, including defending champion Brian Hay, to start their own salsa businesses. He makes six types of salsa, including hot and mild mango, pineapple and cucumber salsas.
As part of his company, Hay Salsa Lovers, Hay makes and sells about 17 gallons of salsa every three weeks to customers around the Valley, including employees at Southeast Valley medical offices.
He started making salsa for potlucks at work and for nurses at an oncology center when his wife was going through cancer treatments. Hay dabbled in salsa making while working at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Arkansas years ago.
“It was just a touch of this, and a shake here, a shake there, and salsa was born,” Hay said.
Hay said that salsa making can be unpredictable because of the peppers.
“You always have to taste test because you never know if the peppers are going to be truly hot or hot enough to make it mild as opposed to something hotter,” Hay said.
If You Go
What: My Nana’s Best-Tasting Salsa Challenge
Where: Sloan Park, 2330 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Mesa
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 13
Tickets: $7 in advance, $10 at the door