By Jessica Foreman
There is no better way to kick off a Texas hot summer than with the best salsa, guacamole and queso that Central Texas restaurants, vendors, and residents have to offer. The 16th annual Margarita & Salsa Festival, held Saturday at the Extraco Events Center, brought in more than 9,400 cowboy-boot clad visitors looking for a spicy bite, a quality country concert and a cool beverage to bring it all together.
Stoney LaRue, The Eli Young Band and Gary Allan headlined the festival. Avid fans came from as far as New York City. At least that was the case for University of Texas graduate Zoe Wilson. Having luckily avoided Hurricane Irene because of her desire to see Gary Allan perform at the Margarita & Salsa Festival, Wilson has followed the country singer from Atlantic City to Philadelphia to Waco, and kept all ticket stubs collected along the way.
“I’ve seen [Gary] at least 20 to 25 times,” Wilson said. “I have a framed Gary Allan signed picture; I’ve kept all of my ticket stubs from concerts. I’m a Gary super-fan.”
At the flicker of stage lights and a scratch of the DJ music, Gary Allan met the loud crowd cheers with a strong opening song, “Right Where I Need To Be.” Arguably the most anticipated artist of the event, Allan performed old and new hits, and did not leave the enthusiastic crowd disappointed.
The Eli Young Band had everyone dancing with their hands in the air, especially during the obvious crowd favorite, “When it Rains.” Lead singer Mike Eli kept up crowd hype with his banter and commentary in between songs most enjoyed by the two-stepping couples kicking up dust, tipping cowboy hats and showing off their best moves.
Even though the Eli Young Band has an especially strong following in Waco, as they are regular performers in the area at venues such as Wild West, Waco school teacher Nicole Cardenas was more impressed with opening performer, Stoney LaRue.
Stoney LaRue opened the event at the start of sunset when people were sprawling out on picnic benches with jumbo corn dogs and fresh squeezed-lemonade.
“Stoney LaRue had better vocals than the Eli Young Band,” Cardenas said. “I am now a fan of Stoney when I wasn’t really before. This is as good as it gets in Waco.”
While many came for the concert, the main contest was held in the Exhibits Building at the Events Center, where contestants soaked in the air conditioning while serving samples of their entries.
El Chico took home the first-place award for best salsa. Other Waco favorites that won awards included Elite Grill, which took home second place, and Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant took home the first-place guacamole and the third-place award for best queso as well.
Navy pilot and salsa contestant Jessica DeWoody of Fort Worth, didn’t place this year, but said she will be more competitive in future years after receiving such positive feedback for her green salsa, “Better Than Yours,” and her margarita salsa made with corn, black beans and actual margarita ingredients.
DeWoody, who is the pilot of a C-40 aircraft when she’s not competing in salsa competitions, convinced me to sample her two salsas out of the contest-required four gallon containers – both of which took six hours to prepare. I am sure Waco’s traditional festival will be seeing her name again in the top categories next year.
“It’s kind of sweet, kind of smoky and spicy on the back-end,” DeWoody said when describing “Better Than Yours. “All I can say is the underdog always comes back.”
The Margarita & Salsa Festival has come a long way since its beginnings in the Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurants, parking lot 16 years ago. All proceeds from this event benefit the Arthritis Foundation and the Scholarship Program at the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo.
Overall, all of the artists’ performances were great and the crowd participation and cheers proved that true. It was exciting to have well-known names in Waco. As Cardenas said, this is as good as it gets in Waco.
The only thing I would change about the Margarita Salsa Festival would have been the heat, but that’s Texas weather for you.
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