No one is going to argue that we don’t all deserve a margarita right about now. The finer details may come in the judging, but don't worry, the Kern Margarita Championship is back to decide who’s tops when it comes to local cocktails.
The contest, which will be held Aug. 21, returns to an in-person event after holding a virtual version in which people voted after visiting restaurants on their own. Along with being a live event, the championship has grown, now being held at the Bakersfield Marriott at the Convention Center.
Event co-chair DT Holder said they knew they'd have to go bigger after the success of the first contest in 2019.
"We outgrew our first location by 7:30 that night," he said. "One of the guests was the catering manager of the Marriott. ... He called from the Marriott (after the event) and said, 'You have to have it here.'"
Organizers booked the hotel for the 2020 event before the pandemic struck, but the Marriott worked with them to reschedule.
Holder said, "The Marriott has been very good at making this happen. ... When COVID happened, they said, 'We're going to transfer your deposit to next year.'"
For this year's championship, nine restaurants will vie for top honors: returning competitors The BLVD, Bocados Sushi Bar, Eureka!, La Mina Cantina and Manuel's Casa de Mariscos; and newcomers Casa Munoz, Tony's Firehouse Grill & Pizza, Camino Real Kitchen & Tequila and Zama Latin American Cuisine, a brand-new restaurant that won't open until this fall.
Alejandro Ocampo, owner of Camino Real, said testing continues on what cocktail his team will serve next weekend.
"It's still up in the air. ... We plan on incorporating some sort of sorbet, an alcoholic sorbet. It will be more on the tropical side with a little bit of heat.
"I'm at a point where I want to do something really amazing, want to please the people."
Ocampo said in addition to the cocktails, they will serve paletas (he also owns Paleta Co.) and additional servings of the boozy sorbet.
He said Camino Real came on board because of the good cause behind the event, which is helping cancer patients in Kern County. His restaurant took part last year in 12 Days of Kindness, an effort to support local charities and organizations, and he wanted to keep the giving going.
"After 13 years of having Camino Real, they say we're No. 1, but we wanted to do it (the contest) for the good cause."
Both Holder and co-chair Michelle Avila are actively involved in the cause, he as the vice president of the Josh Farler Foundation, which is the event beneficiary, and she as the executive director of the Kern County Cancer Foundation.
Holder said the Josh Farler Foundation raises food, transportation and lodging funds for local cancer patients.
"We have a transportation fund for the Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center on Truxtun, the AIS Cancer Center on Chester, and Rio Bravo Cancer Center on Morning Drive and 178. For cancer patients, insurance covers when they get to the facility but nothing covers for them to get there.
"Ultimately, we're raising funds for Kern County cancer patients. We're really hoping for $35,000. It's not a huge number, but it will help a huge number of people in our community."
Tony Martinez, owner of Tony’s Firehouse Grill & Pizza, said he also was eager to give back to the community.
"We do Campout Against Cancer," he said of the KCCF fundraiser. "We supply all the food for dinner and lunch and breakfast. We've done it for many years."
When Avila reached out about the contest, Martinez was on board, saying, "I just want to have fun with it and help out."
The restaurateur said the real competition will take place over the next week at the northeast location off Highway 178 among his staff.
"We have four or five different food items and four different margaritas we're considering, so we'll have our own contest here at the restaurant."
Of the drinks he said, "The bartender wants to do one, my daughter wants to do a different one ... and I know which one I want to do, but they don’t listen to me."
Five awards will be handed out at the end of the event: people's choice, which guests vote for; judges' first and second place, decided by a panel of sponsors and media personalities; the social media award; and food pairing award.
Competitors are not required to provide food but Holder said they've learned that a food pairing "can make or break the actual margarita."
Live music will be provided by Mento Buru, with DJ Richie Rich filling in the gaps.
Holder said they voluntarily capped the event at 500 attendees, saying, "We want people to be able to sit down and have a good time."
(VIPs have access to additional seating areas as well as an earlier admission time, separate line for restaurants and additional food from The Nines at the Marriott.)
The organizer is optimistic the championship can continue to grow in the future, perhaps to the neighboring Mechanics Bank Arena, Theater and Convention Center.
"If we could fill that arena, I'd be all for that."