The Creeper has a bite.
It scoops up like store-bought salsa, though it’s less watery on the chip. And the onions, peppers and tomatoes have a fresh, firm taste that only comes from homemade.
“Now, give it a second,” Dean Edmundson says, who owns Dead Hippie Salsa with friend Cameron Bumgarner. Bumgarner says The Creeper’s late kick fools many a first-timer. “People at the festival will take a sample, say, 'Is that it?’ Then they’ll walk away and two seconds later ...”
Four and a half, to be exact. Four and a half fruity, crunchy seconds before The Creeper sets your tongue afire. Your mouth is stinging, you’re sweating like Rodney Dangerfield and you’d pay $5 for a glass of ice water.
“Pretty good, eh?” Edmundson asks.
Yes, it is. Such is the pleasure and the pain of salsa.
Food fanatics and iron tongues will find heaven on a chip in Tempe tomorrow, as My Nana’s Salsa Challenge garnishes the sunny confines of Tempe Beach Park. Against a backdrop of music, food and spring weather, 70 professional and amateur chefs will vie for the title of Best Salsa — and chip wielding patrons will scoop their hearts out to see who is right.
“It’s really a festive atmosphere,” Edmundson says.
More than 25,000 people are expected to attend the challenge, sampling 80-plus salsas made on site. Burgers, Mexican food and beer will be available to clear the palate. Kids can amuse themselves with bounce houses, laser tag and interactive games. And the Margarita Mix Off will feature a dozen bartenders, celebrity judges and amateur tasters, dedicated to the perfection of the salt-rimmed beverage. A leisurely day for all — except the chefs, who must scale delicate recipes to gargantuan proportions and prepare everything fresh that morning.
“It’s a challenge,” Bumgarner says. “We’ll have a big chopping party the night before.”
Decked out in surgical gloves and Dead Hippie tie-dye, Edmundson and Bumgarner describe the festival as they test run their salsas at Edmunson’s Gilbert home. “All the competitors have 10-by-10 tents.” Edmundson says. Festival veterans like to trick their tents out in elaborate paraphernalia. Salsas are submitted to a culinary panel. But the People’s Choice Award is more egalitarian. “People will come by, sample your salsa.” Edmundson says. “If they like it, they’ll put a dollar in your jar.” The money benefits the Arizona Hemophilia Association. But, before that, it counts as a vote for each patron’s favorite.
“It’s fun,” Bumgarner says. “And it goes to a good cause.” So there’s no rivalry?
The two exchange a look, and a laugh.
“Well, we didn’t say that,” Edmundson says.
ONIONS, PEPPERS AND LOVE
This year will mark the 24th Salsa Challenge in the Valley. In that time, the contest — which began with a handful of competitors in a Phoenix bank parking lot — has outgrown several venues, including Scottsdale Stadium. The challenge is a crunching juggernaut, consuming much of the Tempe Beach Park, where prizes will be awarded at the restaurant, business and individual levels, in hot and mild categories. “Some of our chefs submit both,” the festival’s Katie Stringham says. “So our actual salsa count is around 85.”
Competitors will range from local restaurant franchises to seasoned amateurs like Dead Hippie, to talented draftees like Michelle Gomez.
“I always made salsa for my family, and I would bring some into work. One of the girls at my job had been (to the festival) and she said, 'You have to do this!’ ” So, by public acclamation, the Chandler mom will see her first salsa challenge from the end of a spoon. “I’ll have a lot of people helping me, and my kids cheering me on.”
Her strategy is simple: Stick with what got you here. “On Saturday, I’ll make the salsa like I make it for my family and friends,” she explains. “You have to take your time, and you have to make it with love.”
Of course, the competition is going to require 10 gallons of love.
“I know! That’s going to be ... interesting. But we’re doing a trial run first. It’s nerve-wracking right now,” she laughs. “But I know it’ll be fun as soon as it’s over with.”