When this festival first launched in 2013, its inspiration was pretty local: the south-of-the-border Mexican cuisine of Baja California. But the four-day event—the largest of its kind in the U.S.—has expanded its culinary reach from South America to the Caribbean to Spain, serving up anything from Brazilian-style churrasco to Spanish paella and the Ecuadorian take on corn cakes, humitas.
“Tamales, ceviche, and tacos are typically what consumers think of when they think Latin cuisine in Southern California,” says Latin Food Fest director Richie Matthews, “but emerging dishes and types of cuisine are popping up everywhere in Southern California.” That’s why the festival diversified after 2013. “Instead of the ‘taco fest’ concept,” says Matthews, “our attendees experience things like Salvadoran pupusas, Cuban ropa vieja, and Bolivian salteñas.”
That expansion of flavors is one reason why August’s San Diego event—located at downtown’s waterfront Embarcadero Marina Park North—has added a second, kid-friendly day of Grande Tastings, when you can wander the Culinary Pavilion for cookbook signings, demos, and lots of samples, from Brazilian feijoada (a stew of pork and black beans) to Dominican yaroa, the popular street food made with mashed plantain, strips of meat, and a layer of mozzarella. Past years have featured Aarón Sánchez (famous in part from TV’s Chopped), Colombian-American chef Ingrid Hoffmann, and San Diego’s Javier Plascencia, known for his Bracero Cocina de Raiz, which pays tribute to Mexican migrant workers. This year’s festivities will include chefs such as the Dominican Republic’s Martín Omar, Chef Claudia of MasterChef fame, and Mexican-fusion chef Martín San Román.
“Instead of the ‘taco fest’ concept, our attendees experience things like Salvadoran pupusas, Cuban ropa vieja, and Bolivian salteñas.” —Latin Food Fest director Richie Matthews
For equally diverse pairings, the festival’s Spirits of the Americas Expo lets you refine your Mexican tequila palate and broaden your tastes to other liquors, like Brazil’s cachaça, made from sugarcane, or Chile’s brandy-like pisco. And there’s plenty of wine, coming from Spain, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and that one-time Spanish colony called “California.” Since the Latin cuisine experience is so tightly entwined with music, the weekend also features its own soundtrack: two days of live performances, featuring acts like Havana dance band Amistad Cubana.
Each weekend day offers its own tickets and events (with nicely discounted pricing for kids on one day). Book a VIP ticket and you’ll gain early admission to events, as well as entry to the VIP Tent with its goodie bags, massages, and exclusive snacks—like organic tequila, Baja oysters, and Puerto Nuevo–style grilled lobster.
Can’t make it in August? Then head to Los Angeles in March, when a similar line-up of chefs, flavors, and music will take place at downtown L.A.’s Grand Park.