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I heard about the SoNo Fest Chili Cook-Off my first year in San Diego, but didn’t get a chance to go until this year. The festival is a locally focused street festival that features a chili cook-off from local restaurants in the San Diego area and takes place between North Park and South Park. It’s a volunteer run event where 100% of the proceeds go to McKinley Elementary School to provide additional funding for enhancing and enriching their educational programs. The festival is a great way to hang and meet new neighbors while supporting a great cause.
The event is free if you want to walk around and enjoy the music and shop from the various local vendors, but if you want to taste some of the chili competing in the cook-off you’ll need to purchase a ticket.
There are three ways to purchase a ticket for the festival:
Option #1 - Prior to the event, go to San Diego Ceramic Connection and purchase a handmade ceramic bowl for $20.
Option #2 - Buy tickets online. $15 for a paper bowl or $20 for a SoNo mug.
Option #3 - Buy tickets at the event. $15 for a paper bowl or $20 for a SoNo mug (until supplies last).
I opted for Option #1. One, I thought it would be fun to stop by the local ceramic shop to pick out a unique handmade bowl. Two, I’d rather spend $20 and take home a crafted bowl instead of a paper bowl for $15. If you want, you can also bring your own bowl.
The SoNo Fest ticket allows for five chili tastings. At first, I had my doubts that five tastings would be enough but I was actually quite full by my fourth bowl. The fun part of the Chili Cook-Off is that you can text and vote for your favorite bowl of chili, so it’s a good idea to keep a mental note of what you liked to cast your vote later. When I went to their official website, I counted 34 chili competitors for 2018 and below are the six I tasted:
🌟Best Vegetarian Winner🌟
Unholy Molde Chili with Porcini & Shitake Mushrooms, Sweet Potato, Coffee Stout, Ayocote, Kidney and Smashed Black Beans, Avocado Herb Crema.
Slow cooked pinto beans with Mexican herbs and spices perfumed with smoked chiles finished with pork belly cube and cotija cheese.
Birria Chilli: Slow simmered brisket, House pinto beans, Toasted guagillo and pasilla peppers, herbs and spices, topped with fresh chopped onions and micro cilantro.
🌟People’s Choice Winner🌟
Sweet & Smokey Chili: Smoked Brisket, smoked pork shoulder, 4-color beans, roma tomatoes, and fresno chiles
The Carnivore; 16-hour slow simmered chili, angus beef, pork belly, ground lamb, red kidney beans, chipotle peppers, garnished with chipotle sour cream, and aged white cheddar cheese, green onions and a seasoned waffle fry.
All wood roasted poblano peepers, heirloom fingerling potatoes, onions, garlic, tri-blend of fresh peppers, in a base of fire roasted tomatoes, guajillo, and a tri-blend of beans, all topped with fresh onions & cilantro, pepper jack & questo panela, crema meicana, fire roasted salsa casera.
And my favorite is…
My favorite of the six was the City Tacos. I’m a huge fan of pork belly, so the pork belly cube with the Mexican herbs and spices was such great mix of flavors and texture. My second favorite was the “Best Vegetarian Winner” from Kindred. I really enjoyed the little scoop of avocado and think I’m gonna start adding that to my chili recipe. I was happy to see that out of the six bowls I tried, two of them won. The “Best Overall” winner went to Wonderland Ocean Pub, so if they participate next year, I’m definitely going to try their bowl of chili.
Arrive early! There were a couple of chili booths that I really wanted try, but they sold-out by the time I got there.
There is plenty of street parking in the surrounding neighborhoods, but if you ended up parking a little far try hopping on a rideshare scooter.
Purchase a ceramic bowl a day prior to the event. When I purchased my bowl, the local community was offering free beer and chili in the back of the building. It was like a free mini pre-chili cook-off, so I ended up getting a free lunch that day with my purchase. Not sure if they do this every year, but it was a nice surprise.
It’s amazing how the community gets together every year to create this fun festival. The chefs donate their time and ingredients, the ceramic artists craft tons of ceramic bowls, and the parents and volunteers prepare the venues and much more. All of this to help support McKinley Elementary School’s Spanish, art, and music program.