Taco ’bout a good time in the Strip District

Megan Trotter | Staff Writer | Performers from Mariachi International dance on stage during Saturday's Pittsburgh Taco Festival. They've performed at every festival, dating back to 2016.

Megan Trotter | Staff Writer

Sept. 15, 2022

On Saturday, Pittsburgh held its annual Taco Festival in the Strip District, celebrating what organizers describe as “the greatest hand-food known to man.”

Partnering with Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation (PHDC) and the Latin American Cultural Union (LACU), a mix of food trucks, music, product booths and dancing took over Smallman Street from 12:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Many of the food trucks and taco booths were run by family-owned businesses looking to expand and gain exposure.

Jeimy Ibarra, co-owner of El Colibri LLC with her mother and husband, shared how they used to have a food stand in Mexico. However, since moving to the United States and reopening in the past month, they don’t have a permanent location. In order to continue to share the tradition of their family recipes, they have been holding pop-up shops at farmer markets and local coffee shops.

“My husband is from Oaxaca, and he makes the birria, and then my mom makes all the vegan food,” Ibarra said. “A lot of Mexican food is actually vegan. People don’t know that because it’s not labeled that way, because then it scares people away.”

Birria is a Mexican dish of beef slowly cooked for three hours or more in a five-chili sauce. Ibarra also shared that even though quesadillas are not a traditional food, they decided to incorporate them because of their popularity.

Despite only being open for one month, the El Colibri LLC team said they were happy with their success so far. According to the team, they would sell out of all their food during smaller pop-up events, and had an extensive line at their booth throughout the duration of the festival.

Similarly, family-owned Inmortales Fondita also served traditional Mexican dishes. They added that one of the good things they do is that they only use fresh fruit to make their signature margaritas.

Owner Gricelda Martinez said that over the years, the Taco Festival has always brought more customers into their restaurant. Each year, they hope to gain more clients.

Ricardo Santos, restaurant owner of J. Zapata, shared a different reason for attending the event for the second time as a vendor.

“I came here to have fun,” Santos said. “I’m not just in the business. I’m also passionate for what I do. My passion is cooking.”

In the spirit of fun, Santos proudly wore a large taco-shaped hat, despite spending the entire day cooking under the sun and in the heat.

Unlike many of the other local and family-owned vendors, franchise chain Moe’s Southwest Grill was also at the event.

“Events like this, people usually just come to experience the ‘mom-and-pop’ taco places,” said Moe’s marketing director Kaitlyn Norman. “If people don’t want to wait in line or some people [say] ‘Oh, we love Moe’s tacos,’ then they’ll come to us.”

Norman said that Moe’s attended to build brand awareness. Although they weren’t particularly busy, she was still having fun while working the event.

One of the more popular food fan-favorites for the day was the “Mexican street corn” from California Taco Shop. This dish is corn on the cob charred on the grill, and then slathered in a spicy and creamy mix of mayonnaise, sour cream, cotija cheese, chili powder and lime.

With over 25 vendors contributing to this year’s festival, there was no absence of entertainment.

Mariachi International played a lively two-hour set featuring trumpets, guitars, violins and dancers as well as traditional charro suits. Guitarist Gustavo Galupila shared that they have played at the taco festival since it was founded in 2016 by Craig McCloud.

Crowds of all ages gathered at Los Sabrosos Dance Co.’s booth to learn step-by-step how to salsa dance. Even with a few missteps, laughs and good times were in abundance.

Aside from the cuisine, the Taco Festival also featured several clothing and jewelry booths, local artists and even a gentleman drawing caricatures.

Karina Buari is the owner of Hipdrippp: a pop-up shop focused on featuring items such as handmade bracelets, earrings and bags from both Mexico and Africa. Buari shared how the Taco Festival provided her with an opportunity to share her culture.

“I feel good being able to showcase my culture to Pittsburgh,” Buari said. “I feel it’s nice that people see it as beautiful, just like I see it as beautiful.”

With both parents born in Mexico and growing up in Chicago, Buari said she noticed the scarcity of Hispanic culture in Pittsburgh. She hopes to eventually move to Texas, where there is a larger Hispanic population and open a permanent Hipdrippp location there.

In the meantime, she shared that events like this provide her with an atmosphere of feeling at home and more of “her kind together.”