David Tyda: Founder of Arizona Barbecue Festival, Arizona Taco Festival and EATERAZ.com

David Tyda, founder of Arizona Barbecue Festival, Arizona Taco Festival and EATERAZ.com, photographed at Dick's Hideaway in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

David Tyda, founder of Arizona Barbecue Festival, Arizona Taco Festival and EATERAZ.com, photographed at Dick’s Hideaway in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

David Tyda
twitter.com/EATERAZ

While most who know him would call David Tyda a Valley foodie, the man who’s involved in just about everything in the local restaurant scene insists he’s simply a guy who knows what he likes and isn’t afraid to share his honest opinion about it. Tyda is at the helm of local food blog, www.EATERAZ.com, along with his business partner, Rick Phillips. He and Phillips also own Affordable Food Festivals, which puts on the annual Arizona Barbecue Festival and Arizona Taco Festival. You can say hi to the 36-year-old Phoenix resident at the 4th Annual Arizona Barbecue Festival Saturday, April 20 at Salt River Fields, and keep reading for Tyda’s thoughts on the culinary landscape of the Valley, along with five reasons why he loves living here.

What brought you to Arizona?

School, originally. I’m from Chicago and went to ASU for a degree in humanities with a minor in art theory. I started working on the Ritz-Carlton‘s magazine a week after graduation and did that for 4 years.

Where does your passion for food come from?

That stems from EATERAZ.com and how Rick and I met. Rick started Desert Living Magazine, and I was working at the Ritz-Carlton. As magazines started to go out of business, Rick called to tell me about his idea to start a food blog as a hobby, so once Desert Living folded, I’d have something in the works to fall back on. So, we started EATERAZ.com and developed a little cult following, and now we’re up to 10,000 subscribers. It’s a daily e-mail and website, but what we learned almost immediately is that two grown men can’t make a salary off of a food blog, and that’s what bore the food event business.

Essentially, EATERAZ started as the one place Rick and I could have an opinion, since Desert Living was all fluffy white-washed writing. For the first 6-8 months, no one knew who was doing EATERAZ. It was just this anonymous food blog talking a little shit and calling chefs out on a lot of the hypocrisy. We quickly learned you can’t do that 100 percent of the time — you can’t have another business while doing it. Sure, our edge has softened, but we still call things like we see them. So it’s not so much a passion for food as it is a passion for good food writing and throwing good food events.

Does it disappoint you that your blog has become less critical than it started out?

Yes, definitely. Someone would have to be independently wealthy to pull that off.

What keeps you motivated to do EATERAZ even though it’s not your main source of income?

I’m a writer by trade and at heart. Even if we’re just writing about a wine dinner, which is kind of boring, I still try to come up with a catchy lead and a fun title, and Rick still tries to get a good picture. We take pride in it.

What makes a good food writer, and what makes you a good food writer?

A good food writer is able to effectively and simply describe something. I consider myself an experiential writer. Some food writers can take a bite of food and know every single ingredient that’s in it, whereas I’m going to talk more about the whole experience, because I’m the first to admit that I don’t know jack about food. I know what I like, and I’m able to write about it. There are a lot of food critics who know about food but don’t know how to write, and I think that’s most bloggers. They might be able to say if they liked the experience or not, but they can’t articulate it in an entertaining way, whereas, me at my core, that’s what I take pride in.

What’s your earliest foodie memory?

My mother is from Virginia, so growing up, our food was a lot of deliciously fried, super-unhealthy food made with lots of butter — nobody gave a shit about balance back then. Growing up was simply a matter of eating whatever we wanted without worry. Plus, I felt like there were less food sales pitches back then. Now, being a part of the foodie culture with EATERAZ, I’m just excited to call bullshit on something when it’s bullshit. Like when “eating local” becomes too much of a sales pitch. People should eat local when they believe it’s better, not just because it’s local.

Now that you’ve become a food blogger, have your tastes become more sophisticated?

No. For instance, I’ll go to Cheesecake Factory and get guacamole and chicken wings. I honestly think they have the best hummus in town — this is a corporate restaurant that has done its research about what makes food taste great. And, well, who doesn’t like food that tastes great?

What’s your favorite restaurant in town?

I find myself going to Houston’s more than any other restaurant in town. I know exactly what I’m going to get, the service is great, the environment is great, the people are great — everything about it. And then there’s Dick’s Hideaway. It has good music and good drinks, and the food is spicy. I also love The Mission, St. Francis and Green.

What is your favorite food?

Tacos. Tacos are a food that can be down and dirty and quickly made, or take a longer time to make and justify a higher price. There are $18 ribeye tacos at Chelsea’s Kitchen, and they’re delicious, but then I’ll go to Gallo Blanco, and they’re $2.50, or La Condesa or El Bravo. They all have their allure. The taco is the most adapted and adaptable food in America. It is the thing that all types of restaurants, no matter what kind of cuisine they serve, have served. You could even call a lettuce wrap a taco, no?

Who has the best tacos in town?

High-end, I love Chelsea’s Kitchen. There’s are always fresh and in season. I love Gallo Blanco and also Juan’s does a great taco — just a greasy, hot mess from a hole-in-the-wall place.

What’s the restaurant in town that most needs improvement?

Any restaurant that knocks off Sam Fox or Craig DeMarco, which is the biggest trend in town. Not so much in style, just that so many of them think they’re creating concepts, and not restaurants. That’s a ridiculous notion. People always tell us they’re doing “a concept like Postino” — so, you’re doing a wine bar? How’s that a concept? I remember 5th and Wine got a lot of shit for being a Postino knock-off in the beginning, but the fact is, most people can’t sit in there all day and drink wine, whereas, I go to Postino meaning to have lunch, and next thing I know, it’s 7 o’clock. There’s something about that place that just makes people want to hang out, and Sam Fox restaurants can be like that. I went to The Yard yesterday, and I can tell I’m going to spend so many Sunday’s there, just drinking, playing cornhole. At 5th and Wine, I can’t tell if it’s a lounge or dining room. I wouldn’t want to sit all day at a table in the middle of the room. People in Arizona want booths, their own little corners, or a lot of bar seating.

What is the best restaurant that’s opened in the past year in Arizona?

Davanti Scottsdale. It’s just fun. The food is great, the music is loud, and you have to get the focaccia.

How much do you cook?

A little, a lot of my mom’s old recipes, like simple tacos. Ground beef with onions, flour tortilla and ketchup. Yep, ketchup.

What is the Valley’s best-kept restaurant secret?

Dick’s Hideaway. Even though it’s still so popular, it’s hard to find, and so many people just don’t know about it.

Who is the best restauranteur in Arizona?

Sam Fox, without question. He gives the people what they want. He doesn’t try to reinvent things. He doesn’t try to show you how smart he is. A lot of people will disagree with this, but I think he takes the ego out of the equation. So many restaurants try to push their chef’s genius on you, and Sam Fox restaurants are so much simpler.

How do you think the Valley’s culinary scene compares to others around the country?

We have a solid culinary scene here. The problem is that everyone thinks everything is too far. I keep a running list of 20 or 30 restaurants I want to get to, and 90 percent of those are further than 5 miles from my house. If I lived in Chicago, I would go to those places every night of the week. Here, we think things like, “I have to get in my car and go to Chandler?” But Chandler is only 15 minutes away, it’s not a big deal.

But also, I think we need more chefs not trying to attach a “concept” to their food, and just cooking what they want to cook and not selling it so hard. I feel like I’m constantly getting sold that this vegetable was just pulled out of the ground by some local farmer, or that these chickens were raised in the humanest way possible. At some point, you just go, “Fuck it, I I don’t care where it comes from, I just want it to be good.” When you see menus call out the farm they bought something from, I don’t think the public is that savvy or that interested — they just want something that tastes good.

What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects to putting on the festivals?

This is going to sound a bit cheesy, but at our second-year barbecue festival, I saw a family who had brought a blanket in front of the stage and were eating ribs with their newborn and 4-year-old. I knew that was going to be a memory for them. I didn’t expect it to hit me like that, but it was pretty cool to think we had created this thing that provided a memory for a family.

The most challenging aspect is keeping the event on the tracks. If too many people show up, your event can get broken, lines can get too long, people get irritable. Keeping the train on the tracks is important.

What are your goals for the next year, and what are your long-term goals?

When we threw the Taco Festival, it was the first Taco Festival anyone had done in the country. Because it’s a competition, and since no one had done a taco festival, we had to create this thing called the National Taco Association and certify judges to objectively judge food so we could truthfully award the $10,000 we put up. We created a website, nationaltacoassociation.com, and it’s taken us 2 years to get this thing launched. It will launch this year. And it will serve as a model for throwing other taco festivals around the nation.

Tacos represent more than a food — it’s a lifestyle. We coined the phrase, “From beach to barrio,” because we’re talking about down and dirty inner city tacos, carts on the street in Mexico, or on the beach with a Corona. All of that is a lifestyle we want to portray on this website. The site would help you find food trucks in your town, find taco restaurants, find good taco recipe books, margarita recipes, hot sauce reviews, all of the ancillary stuff that surrounds the taco. We’re plugging away as best we can at it. Hopefully it will be out in the next month.

Long-term, I guess just to survive all of this craziness!

Who is the most promising chef in town?

James Fox at Milagro Grill. He started under Matt Carter at The Mission. When he’s in the kitchen at Milagro, the food is so dialed in. He’s also tried some new dish ideas out on us — we’re always blown away by his ability to make food that tastes like nothing you’ve ever had before … in a good way.

Why should people go to one of your festivals?

Barbecue is coming up on 4/20, and we’re adding the Redneck Games. What we learned from the last Taco Festival, is that everyone wants to laugh and make fun of themselves. Everyone came out in sombreros and mustaches and drank tons of tequila. I can’t remember the last time I laughed for 2 days straight, but that happened at the Taco Festival, and we need that to happen to Barbecue. All of our festivals moving forward, the mantra is to have a sense of humor.

In the past, it’s been a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned barbecue competition, so you’d have barbecue teams come from all over the country, $40,000 in prize money, a big awards ceremony, yadda, yadda. We realized that is totally exclusionary to the public, because people just want to have a good time. The Redneck Games Arena will have beer pong, mullet beauty pageant contests, lawnmower races, watermelon seed spitting, and a hubcap hurl challenge. It’s going to be hilarity at every turn. There will still be great barbecue, but the focus will be on having a good time.

How often do you eat out?

I eat out every single day. Dinner, probably four or five nights a week, but lunch, every single day.

What place has the best deals?

Wahsun, a Chinese restaurant at 19th Avenue and Northern. I am perpetually puzzled that I can go there with eight people, and my bill will be about $36. I don’t really look at the prices when I order at a place like that, and I still can’t to this day figure out how my bill is that cheap.

Where is your favorite culinary scene?

I think Vegas, for the sheer excitement of it. All of the world’s greatest chefs have restaurants there, so the culinary scene is unlike anywhere else.

What’s your view of the journalism landscape?

I think it’s breathing it’s last breath, as we speak. I just don’t think journalism as we know it is going to exist by the next generation. I think it’s going to become citizen reporting through social media, and that will inform the masses. It makes me feel nostalgic for journalism, but the universe has its ways of making things work out for the better. I’m never going to fight something I believe is happening for a reason. Even if I disagree, that there are so many bitchy Yelp-ers out there who are affecting business in a bad way, I have to believe that there is some good reason for it all in the long run.

Which local restaurant do you think has the most potential?

Crudo. I know the chef/owner, Cullen Campbell, has appeared in every media outlet imaginable, and his co-owner, Micah Olson, makes the best cocktails in town, and they’re busy all the time, but I believe Crudo has the potential for a national audience. Tourists will start putting Crudo at the top of their “must-visit” lists. The place seems successful, but has so much more potential.

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