12th annual SalsaFest draws a crowd

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Tathra White presents her father’s salsa at the Ron’s Piano Service salsa table. The 12th annual SalsaFest had one of the biggest turnouts in the festival’s history.

By Jon Johnson


SAFFORD – The sights, sounds, and smells of the 12th annual SalsaFest permeated Downtown Safford over the weekend as thousands of festival-goers turned out for the event. 

“I think this is probably even bigger than last year,” said  Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patrick O’Donnell. “We’ve got double the food vendors this year. Last night, (we) had the biggest crowd ever seen on a Friday night . . . I think it’s bigger and better than it has been. It just feels like its getting bigger.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Salsa-eating champion Harvey Sauls, of Morenci, raises his arms in victory.

O’Donnell said the event was only possible due to all the volunteer effort from the Safford Lions Club and that it is a great family-friendly event.

Returning this year was the beer garden, championed by the Chamber of Commerce, and joining the frosty mugs of beer were two area wineries with their wares as well.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The salsa wasn’t the only thing that was hot.

Graham County Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Tim Linden of III Counties Distributing also praised all the sponsors for making the event happen.

“It’s a great community event,” Linden said. “We continue to grow it and make it better with better entertainment and more vendors. (It’s) more reason to come to Downtown Safford.

Linden had the pleasure of being one of the judges for the salsa contest this year and said he was amazed at how many good salsas were out there.   

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patrick O’Donnell said the event drew twice as many food vendors this year.

Everyone’s favorite nonagenarian Amelia Sainz gave her recipe and expertise to her daughter, Anna Sainz, who took home the $500 first-place award for the Judge’s Choice. Stephanie Gregory took home second and Deanna Best placed third. The judges for this year’s competition were Tim Linden, Megan Reyes, Geoff Oldfather, and Sean Wenham.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Amelia Sainz passed on her award-winning salsa recipe and expertise to her daughter, Anna, who took home first place in the Judge’s Choice.

In the People’s Choice contest, however, Stephanie Gregory came out on top, just besting two-time People’s Choice winner Deanna Best, with Leah Nabor in third.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Two-time People’s Choice champion Deanna Best barely missed a three-peat and ended up in second place.

This year, the SalsaFest featured a new wrinkle for the Salsa Trail Challenge for the local restaurants and competitors were given three surprise ingredients that morning, kale, serrano chile peppers, and canned sweet kernel corn, and then had to use them in their entries. The restaurants brave enough to put forth the salsas were El Coronado, El Charro, and La Paloma, with La Paloma winning the competition. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Codie Porter received multiple honors for this piece titled ‘Pumpkin Descent.’

The festival has grown from its humble beginnings and now encompasses nearly all of Downtown Safford, with vendors, musical acts, games, events, and more stretching down Main Street.

Chandler Efros, who played guitar and sang with Darryn Kamae, said he was impressed by the number of options at the festival.   

“There was a lot of cool stuff going on this year,” Chandler Efros said.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Darryn Kamae lights up the stage.

Other musical acts this year featured regulars Mariachi Luz de Luna and Heart & Soul from Tucson, local group Boomtown, and the festival closed out with a concert by XS Band.

Throughout the Salsa Challenge, local acts such as the Gypsy Rose Dancers, Safford Dance Academy, and Extreme Martial Arts put on shows for the entertainment of the masses. 

Down Main Street, a classic car show wowed the crowd and the artistic talents were on display in the sidewalk art competition. Codie Porter came away with honors for people’s choice, best overall, and most creative for her piece, “Pumpkin Descent.”

Back at the SalsaFest Stage, onlookers who made it through to the afternoon witnessed a close salsa-eating competition and an epic jalapeño pepper-eating contest that went into overtime.

Harvey Sauls, of Morenci, took home the honors for the salsa-eating contest by using a single chip as a spoon to scoop the salsa into his mouth.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: A member of Extreme Martial Arts breaks a board with her foot.

Past chile pepper contest champion P.J. Ogas came out on top after initially tying twice with Harvey Lunt. Both men bravely devoured seven peppers in the first round and another five in the second round. Lunt, who told the Gila Herald he liked peppers and hot stuff on all of his food, had to come back to tie Ogas, and like Roberto Duran decided he had enough and said no mas to a third round. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: P.J. Ogas raises his arm for victory, but Harvey Lunt came back to eat just as many. Ogas was declared the victor when Lunt declined another tiebreaker round.

Ogas, who had raised his hand either prematurely for victory or in prediction, was in tough shape as well. After swathing some peanut butter on his tongue to cool it down, he said he would have been down to continue.

“It would have been fun to do one more with that guy,” Ogas said. “It would have been fun.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Magician Samuel Siminoe makes cotton candy for an event-goer.

Past repeat champion Ramie Loya was missing from this year’s competition, but he commented on the Gila Herald’s video of the event and told Ogas to enjoy his victory this year because he would be back to challenge him for the title next year.

To see more pictures click here to view the photo album.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Edna Apodaca gets into the spirit while distributing El Coronado’s Trail Challenge entry.