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Hail to the Queen 

Salsa Queen Zapata has our bet in this season of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race.

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I'm sure you all already knew this, but I'm not much of a sports fan. I am a fan of competitive food shows, however. As fun as they are to watch regardless of who is competing, if I hear about some local talent being featured on a Food Network show like The Great Food Truck Race, it's hard to contain my excitement. Not only do these local culinarians do a great job representing our state, but they do wonders to help dispel the rumor that Utah is a gastronomic wasteland.

With a new season of The Great Food Truck Race premiering on June 5, I was excited to learn that our own Salsa Queen Zapata—yes, Salsa Queen is her legal name—would be a competitor. She and her team, which includes her husband Jim Birch, will be helming a food truck and zipping around California with Tyler Florence and the season's other competitors, making this season particularly fun to watch for Utahns.

Before gearing up to watch the premiere, I had a chance to chat with Zapata and Birch about their excellent selection of salsas, and the strategies they're taking into the competition. Zapata's path to overseeing one of the most prolific local salsa ventures began with no shortage of adversity. "I started as a single mother eight years ago," she says. "I found myself in a hard situation where I was divorced with seven kids, and making salsa was a perfect fit for us."

Zapata and her family began by selling their salsa varieties online and through attending local farmers markets, and the endeavor grew to be a perfect mix of financial support and family togetherness. "My kids and I would just get together, chop tomatoes and experiment with flavors," Zapata says. "That's how we do it in Mexico—you just go by the taste and the emotions you feel in the kitchen."

As we talk, it's clear that family is something that is very near and dear to Zapata's heart. In addition to having her children help her create recipes and attend farmers markets, her husband Jim Birch has been a cheerleader ever since the two met. "I eat a lot of salsa—that's my main contribution," Birch says.

In addition to the quality control he provides, Birch has helped Salsa Queen expand its reach across the nation. Since Zapata and Birch met, Salsa Queen as moved from Zapata's home kitchen to a large commercial facility in West Valley. They have also ushered in an era of freeze-dried salsa that can be shipped and enjoyed all over the world.

I did my share of salsa research leading up to the interview; you can find Salsa Queen products at plenty of local stores, but Smith's and Harmon's are its most consistent vendors. Mango pineapple salsa packs a tropical sweetness, the roasted tomatillo has a nice balance of heat and acidity, and the queso chipotle is perfect for nacho fans. Though I enjoyed the salsas I selected with some basic tortilla chips, I couldn't help but imagine different ways that my choices could be utilized in the kitchen. For example, the acid-heavy roasted tomatillo would be an absolute banger on hot dogs or bratwursts, and I could see the queso chipotle going very far on burgers, fries or both. Whatever your favorite salsa may be, Salsa Queen offerings emphasize fresh ingredients and diverse flavors.

According to Zapata, the opportunity to compete on this season of The Great Food Truck Race was initiated by Food Network. "They found us through Instagram," Zapata says. "We waited very impatiently for them to let us know if we were going to be one of the contestants."

During their time on the show, Zapata saw the competition as a great way to meet other professionals from around the country: "My favorite part of the show was to see these contestants put their hearts out there to work hard and fulfill their dreams."

Though Zapata and Birch are no strangers to running a national business, operating a food truck was something new to both of them. The production team on The Great Food Truck Race provides each group of contestants with a food truck that exemplifies their mobile restaurant concept, and Zapata's plan is to do what she loves. "We are going to use recipes that are very close to our hearts, along with things we cook at home," Zapata says. Based on her menu of Mexican favorites, she couldn't be happier that this season's competition takes place in California. "I brought a lot of spice to the competition," Zapata says.

I'm looking forward to cheering Salsa Queen on this summer and will make sure we're well stocked on our roasted tomatillo and queso chipotle salsas. I can't wait to see Salsa Queen kick some culinary ass on national TV.

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