Having grown up in southwestern Kansas, Joey Pauda was used to seeing representation of his Latino heritage all around him. Now, living in Lawrence, he’s trying to create more spaces to celebrate Latino culture.
Pauda is one of the organizers behind Taco Wars, an annual fundraiser designed to promote Latino visibility in the Lawrence community.
This year’s Taco Wars is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Replay Lounge, 946 Massachusetts St.
Four local restaurants — Latchkey Deli, JBs Tacos, La Parrilla, and Taco Zone — will compete to serve the best taco. Entertainment will include Pauda himself, under his stage name DJ Joey Chingasos, and The Phantastics.
“I love the Lawrence community and how it’s willing to accept different cultures. I also feel like a lot of the hard-working people here are Latinos. They’re the ones cooking or fixing the streets, and they also need their time to shine and a place for them to celebrate,” Pauda says. “This [event] is a way to get all that hard work out — like yeah, we did this — and have a good time, for a good cause.”
For attendees who bring two nonperishable food items to donate to Just Food, the cover fee will be reduced from $10 to $8. A portion of the event’s proceeds will also benefit the Willow Domestic Violence Center.
In exchange for the cover fee, each attendee receives a ballot and a ticket for a free taco from each vendor. Votes are tallied and the winners are announced at the end of the night.
Chetan Michie, another organizer behind Taco Wars, originally spearheaded the idea back in 2018 with colleagues Jen and Mike Young. Michie is a prominent member of the Lawrence food scene, currently holding the titles of sourcing and production manager for Just Food and co-owner of Latchkey Deli. And as a third-generation Indian-American, Michie shares Pauda’s passion to celebrate underrepresented groups.
“We came up with Taco Wars as something fun that could benefit Latino charities,” Michie says. “We’ve benefited the ACLU as well as the Sanctuary Alliance, which provides legal aid for families that are displaced at the borders. Now, we’re bringing it back to benefit the local community.”
Michie believes this event fulfills a unique niche that sets it apart from for-profit taco competitions slated for Topeka and Kansas City later this year. In addition to supporting specific community needs, it’s also a way for food service industry folks to come together.
“Working with the caliber of restaurants that we are, it harkens back to my days of doing benefit dinners. It’s a chance for food professionals to get together and feel a sense of camaraderie and celebration,” Michie says. “The service industry in this town is really tight-knit, and oftentimes they’re the ones behind the scenes doing stuff. So being able to amplify them is really cool.”
Jake Little, booking agent at the Replay and another Taco Wars organizer, is working with the venue’s head bartenders for a special drink menu. Although they can’t announce details yet, they promise fun creations similar to what they’ve served in previous years, such as a Baja Blast-inspired margarita.
This focus on fun has generated growing interest in the event year after year. As the organizers continue their work, they hope to grow the Taco Wars tradition into something even bigger. Pauda and Michie shared their goals of turning the event into a full block party and benefiting more Latino charities.
“It feels like it opens doors and possibilities on where we can expand and take this, and at the same time, who else can we help along the way,” Pauda says.
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.