When Maharba Zapata received her citizenship in 2019, she legally changed her name to SalsaQueen — a name recognizable to those who live in Utah and love top-notch salsa.
On June 5, Zapata and husband Jim Birch will make their reality TV debut, on season 15 of Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.”
“I do a lot of local TV here in Salt Lake City, but it’s a different experience, totally,” Zapata said.
Waiting to hear if the truck had been picked for the show, Zapata said, “was a two-month ordeal, where you’re biting your nails and waiting for the call to see if you’re going to make it or not. … Two months is not very long, but when you are waiting for something exciting — yeah, it’s quite a long wait!”
When they got that call, she said, “we were super, super excited. Of course, we didn’t have a lot of time between the time they spoke [to us] to the time we had to leave. So we had everything pretty much ready just in case — the utensils we’re going to need, recipes, things like that.”
The show — which Entertainment Weekly once described as “a cross between ‘Cannonball Run’ and ‘Top Chef’” — features food truck teams that travel to different towns. Teams are issued a cooking challenge, and then try out the resulting dish out on the local populace. It’s hosted by Tyler Florence, owner and executive chef of Bay Area restaurant Wayfare Tavern, and the host of several shows for Food Network.
This season is set up and down the Southern California coast, and features eight other food truck teams from around the country, all of them vying for a $50,000 grand prize. In the first episode, set in Laguna Beach, Florence challenged the teams to cook a really hot dish.
“They had all kinds of peppers,” Zapata said. “They had jalapenos, they had serranos, they had poblanos, and they had a habanero pepper, and nobody went for the habanero. Everybody went for the other peppers. I think everybody was too intimidated to create a dish with a habanero. So what Tyler did was do a little spin on it — whatever team picks the habanero gets an extra hundred dollars for seed money. And of course everyone wants the seed money, so I think everyone went and did it. One of our team members did the ‘Battle of the Habanero’ for the team. So that was really fun.”
The show is fun, but it’s also grueling. Zapata recalled that they were so tired before the first day’s shooting, they forgot their main ingredient: Lemons.
“We had to regroup and rethink and create something without our main, main ingredient,” Zapata said. “And that was very challenging. But we were able to pull it very well together.”
Cooking with peppers was less of a challenge for Zapata than cooking without lemons — but thinking through equipment and ingredients for a reality show definitely threw her for a loop. Zapata said her team had to simplify the recipes once they started to cook, and rid themselves of kitchen items they couldn’t use. She initially planned to use crock pots to keep meat and sauces warm, but eventually scrapped that idea.
“You’ve got a generator, and you can only get so much power out of the generator,” Birch said.
It’s a bit ironic that Salsa Queen is competing in a food-truck show — because the brand, which can be found in nearly every grocery store in Utah, doesn’t operate a food truck in its home state.
“When we were starting Salsa Queen eight years ago, we did start looking at food trucks,” Birch said. “We ended up not doing it because they are pretty expensive — $50,000 for just a basic used one. We ended up not going down that path, so this was an interesting opportunity for us. The food truck was loaned through the show, and it gives you a chance to experience it firsthand and know what it’s like.”
Zapata and Birch realized they did kind of know what it was like — because it was much like a similar experience they did for years: Getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the farmers market to sell salsa, and then tearing everything down and packing up at 6 or 7 p.m. at night.
“That was a lot of work, too,” Birch said. “So I would say that we don’t have immediate plans for a food truck!”
“The Great Food Truck Race” premieres Sunday, June 5; at 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. Mountain time (depending on whether your provider delivers the Eastern or Pacific feed), and streaming on discovery+. The series runs for eight episodes, with the finale scheduled for Sunday, July 24.
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