Category Archives: Food

Joseph and The Pita Hut

The Pita Hut, located in Chelsea Corners is the home of some fabulous Mediterranean food in Shelby County!

I got a text from my friend Lisa Pruitt last month saying we needed to try out a restaurant in Chelsea called The Pita Hut.  Well, I’m always up for a night out with Lisa and her husband Johnny so of course I said yes!  But I also wondered why she wanted to drive all the way to Chelsea from Hoover on a Friday night for dinner.  I was curious, to say the least!

Turns out, Lisa has a friend who is close friends with The Pita Hut owner, Joseph Matta , and she wanted us to go try the food!  Joseph has been in the restaurant business for some time now and has been at his Chelsea location since early 2014.  I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest.  I mean, based on the restaurant name, I really thought we would be having pita sandwiches and soft drinks.  Boy was I ever wrong!

The Pita Hut is located in the Chelsea Corners strip mall  right off of Highway 280.  Coming from Hoover, it was a bit of a trip and when we arrived we weren’t sure where the restaurant was situated.  We quickly found it nestled in the corner of the strip mall.  When we walked in, there were several couples having dinner and it felt quite intimate.  There is a beautiful mural on the back wall of the restaurant so when the hostess asked us where we wanted to sit, I pointed to the tables right in front of the mural.  It was picture perfect!

Beautiful mural in The Pita Hut! This is where we sat that Friday night.

Soon we were ordering wine and carefully studying the menu.  We quickly discovered the options were endless!  While they do a sandwich type business during the day, the evening is reserved for a more white tablecloth offering.  We decided to order the sample appetizer platter while we were mulling over our dinner options.  The sampler included baked pita chips, fresh pita, hummus, baba gannouj, taziki, salsa, falafel, spinach fatayer, beef fatayer and olives and cheeses.  That was a feast in itself!!!  Plus, they brought out fresh homemade hummus and pita chips right before the platter arrived!  We decided we needed to pace ourselves!!!

The sampler platter was a meal in itself!

Next thing we knew, Joseph the owner was at our table to welcome us and see how things were going.  Lisa told him of their mutual friend and we asked him about his business.  As he spoke it was clear that Joseph considers himself a chef and an artist.  He relishes in creating foods that leave his customers coming back for more, not only because the food is delicious but also because of the beautiful presentation.  He mentioned his catering business and from the sound of it, the catering side of his business is quite strong!  So after our appetizer sampler and a little tabouli salad, Joseph asked us what we wanted our entrees to be.  I was really interested in the shrimp adobado plate and curious as to why a Mediterranean restaurant would have something with Mexican adobo sauce on the menu.  As it turns our, Joseph once lived in Texas and worked/managed a Mexican restaurant!

After much discussion and back and forth about what to order, Joseph said to us – “let me go back to the kitchen and prepare some especially food for you.”  He had listened to us talk about our preferences and I could almost see his artist/chef mind working.  We all excitedly agreed!  Well…what Joseph ended up bringing to our table was a feast!  We got the shrimp adobado along with the Special Chicken Rolls, which Eddie was wanting to try.  The shrimp was stuffed with mild peppers and wrapped in bacon and grilled, while the chicken rolls were stuffed with spinach and cheese with wine reduction sauce.  He also brought out a platter of Kibbi, Kefta and grape leaves.  This is the more traditional food and it was all fabulous!  The kefta is made with fresh ground sirloin and has onions, parsley and very unique spices.  The kibbi is also made from ground meat – generally beef or lamb and topped with taziki sauce.  You can never go wrong with taziki sauce!  Last but not least…grape leaves.  This mixture of rice, dill, mint and meat rolled in a grape leaf reminds me of a tiny tamale only in this case you “can” eat the grape leaf. (NOTE:  You definitely don’t want to eat a Mexican tamale corn husk!)

After we had a chance to fill our plates and sample everything, Joseph came out to check on us and we were collectively oohing and aahing.  The flavors were all so incredible and complementary.  I asked Joseph about one of the flavors in particular.  I was getting a hint of cinnamon in the kefta and he said “That’s right!  We cook with 7 different seasonings and that is one.”  It was an unexpected one!  I mean, I wouldn’t think of a cinnamon flavor in a meat dish but it definitely worked!

We stuffed ourselves so much that the idea of dessert should have been out of the question.  But we still wanted to sample so we got the baklava to go.  Joseph surprised us with containers of his homemade hummus and chips too.  Lisa and I also couldn’t leave without a photo of Joseph in front of his beautiful restaurant mural.  He was more than happy to oblige as we thanked him for a wonderful dining experience!

My friend, Lisa Pruitt and I with The Pita Hut owner, Joseph Matta in front of the lovely restaurant mural. We were stuffed at this point!

There are a few takeaways from this night that I still think about.  First, you know the old saying about not judging a book by its cover?  Well, there’s definitely a whole lot more to The Pita Hut than I expected!  The dining experience was top-notch and I want to really emphasize how wonderful it was!  I know it’s off the beaten path for me personally since I live in Hoover but I loved the fact that a friend who lives in the Chelsea area commented on a photo I posted and how much she loves the place!  Secondly, it’s great to see unique restaurants all over the Birmingham region popping up these days.  Granted, The Pita Hut has been here for several years but that just goes to show you can always discover something new in places you don’t necessarily frequent!  Which leads me to my third takeaway…spreading the good news by word of mouth, or in my case…through a blog post!  The Shelby County area has definitely seen a surge in population over the past ten years or so and so I suspect more and more places will be popping up.  But Joseph’s Pita Hut is well established and I highly recommend you give them a try!  As for me…I’m ready for a return visit and I already have a few new items I want to try…like the Mediterranean pita quesadillas!

 

 

It’s National Concha Day!

Conchas from Mi Pueblo Supermarket!

…well, almost…

I was scrolling through Instagram last week when I spotted a post from Raggedy Tiff about a gathering on December 8th for National Concha Day.  This was right after I found out I was hosting my annual cookie exchange party ON National Cookie Day so I was interested in finding out more about National Concha Day!  (Oh…and I know there’s a list of these national food days somewhere too and I plan to find it soon!)

What I found out in my research was that Jessica Resendiz of Raggedy Tiff, Alicia Becerra of Alicia’s Delicias and Karina Jimenez of Viva Los Cupcakes – all in California – had created a Change.org petition back in July to establish a National Concha Day on December 8th!  After gathering 5,000 signatures, the petition would then be sent to Governor Jerry Brown and 8 senators to request this special date become reality.

But wait a minute…maybe I should explain what a concha is and why this is important before going any further!  Also called pan dulce, a concha is Mexican sweet bread.  It is recognizable by its large shell-like shape.  In fact, concha means “shell,” and the top of the bread has a sugar shell pattern on it.  This bread has a “light” sweetness to it…much different than a donut or other pastry.  Buying a bag full of these conchas from Mi Pueblo Supermarket’s extensive bakery in Homewood is always a treat because they look so beautiful in the bag!  I generally select every color they have too.  Grab a cafecito and you have a delish breakfast or late brunch on a Saturday or Sunday, although traditionally a concha is eaten with a cup of hot chocolate!

Of course, having a National Concha Day would not be just about the bread…it’s more about a recognition of Mexican culture and traditions.  I’ve seen artists online who use the concha as an art form, creating earrings, necklaces and bracelets with this iconic bread on them.  I’ve also seen my share of t-shirts with funny slogans on them like “Let your conchas be your guide” and “don’t be self conchas!”  I may need to order one of those!  The concha is just such a mainstay in the Mexican culture and was influenced by the French, even the French occupation ended with the Battle of Puebla, better known as Cinco de Mayo.

As the petition states…”The creation of a National Concha Day would be a fun and exciting way to honor the Mexican pastry and its culture. Such a day would not only bring smiles to people’s faces, but also create cultural awareness of our customs and traditions.”  Plus…they are delicious!!!

I signed the petition today and they are so close to getting those 5,000 signatures!  If you’ve enjoyed a concha and love them and feel so inclined, hop on over to change.org (click here) and add your name to the petition.  Maybe this time next year it will be official and we’ll be saying a la Oprah…”you get a concha, you get a concha…everybody gets a concha!”  Meanwhile, tomorrow I’ll be having coffee and a concha and celebrating!

The pretty pink concha set against my Mexican Christmas tree this evening!

Feta, Corn and Black Bean Salsa – Always A Crowd Favorite!

Ingredients for my feta, corn and black bean salsa! Super easy!

Every year for my annual cookie exchange extravaganza, I serve up margaritas and a little Mexican food for my guests.  A few years ago though, I wanted to add a little something extra for everyone to nibble on.  I went through recipes I had collected over the years and found a recipe card I had picked up somewhere for a feta, corn and black bean salsa.  Of course, the “salsa” part got my attention with the Mexican food theme I had going on but what really got me was “feta!”  I LOVE me some feta cheese!!!

The first time I served it, I don’t think I had much left over to enjoy for myself later!  I took that as a good sign.  So the next year I doubled the recipe and was still lucky to have some left over!  It has become a crowd favorite, for sure…just like my mother’s homemade salsa always is each year.  She brought two large jars of that salsa over last night and it was ALL gone by the time we finished exchanging cookies last night!  (Click here to read about her salsa and get the recipe!)

The best part of this feta, corn and black bean salsa recipe is how easy it is to put together.  You just mix it all together, chill for 4 hours, and you’ve ready to serve!

Ingredients include:

  • 2 cans low sodium black beans (rinse and drain)
  • 2 cans of sweet corn (rinse and drain)
  • 1 cup (8 oz) of Feta Cheese
  • 1/4 cup of green onions, chopped (or you can use purple onion)
  • 1/2 cup of sugar (or you can use a substitute like Truvia which equals about 1/3 cup)
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

Each time I finish making this salsa, I fill up a small bowl and just savor the flavors.  After it has refrigerated for a few hours though, the flavors really get absorbed into the corn, black beans and feta.  It goes great with those scoop corn chips!  This is the perfect easy recipe to take and share with friends!  I promise your crowd will like it as much as my crowd!  Buen provecho!

Feta, corn and black ben salsa!

 

 

Adventures in Dim Sum

Amazing dim sum spread from The Black Pearl Asian Cuisine Restaurant in Homewood, AL.

My first memory of Dim Sum was from the 1988 movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver.  Tess McGill, Melanie’s character in the movie impresses her boss, played by Sigourney, with a suggestion to serve this trendy food at a business reception.  Next scene, Tess is pushing a dim sum cart around the reception and serving dumplings to the guests while her 80s frizzed hair is falling from the steam!

Food bloggers ready to feast on dim sum!

I didn’t really know what dim sum was then and had never taken the opportunity to search for it and try it.  Then a few weeks ago I got an email from my friend Cassandra King, better known as Comedienne Joy, of Dining Out with Comedienne Joy, inviting me to a food blogger event she had arranged at The Black Pearl Asian Cuisine Restaurant in Homewood, AL.  I jumped at the chance along with Russell and Amber Hooks of Happenin’s in the ‘Ham, Julia Sayers, Editorin-Chief at Birmingham Magazine, Chad Scroggins with Yelp and Shauna Stuart with AL.com.  I don’t think any of us were expecting the feast that was awaiting us that evening!

As we all waited for the dim sum cart to appear, Cassandra ordered up some crab rangoon to try.  I think I was the only one at the table who had never sampled these tasty appetizers!  I wasn’t expecting it to be so creamy and I’m glad we were all sharing cause I could have devoured that entire plate!  But…I needed to save room for the main course…or should I say courses!

Next thing we knew, a cart was wheeled out piled high with bamboo steamers to our table.  I was desperately trying to take notes on my phone as the items were placed on the table.  I thought I had a pretty good system in place – take a photo, write a description – but before I knew it there were so many different types of dim sum in front of us I just gave up!  What helped was everyone pretty much sampling the same things together.  We compared notes on the flavors of each dish, what we liked the best and what surprised us.

My favorites included the Lotus leaf wrapped chicken and rice.  Cassandra described it as being like a casserole and she was right.  This one took me the longest to eat because the flavors were so rich and it was so huge.  It reminded me of a Mexican tamale with the way it was wrapped and I love a good tamale.  Other favorites included the steamed shrimp dumplings – the dumpling part was almost translucent and so pretty, and the Sui Mai which were stuffed pork and shrimp.  The Sui Mai were probably the prettiest to me with the orange topping said to be crab roe however I’m not sure if that was the case with these.  (I need a return visit to investigate further!)

I also loved the steamed BBQ pork buns.  I wasn’t really sure how these would taste because they looked rather doughy.  Make sure to peel the paper off the bottom before eating!  The taste of the dough was actually a little sweet which was a nice contrast to the BBQ.  The steam egg custard bun was more like a dessert and looked like a boiled egg when pulled apart with the yellow custard inside.  This dish was very light and not overly sweet which I really liked!

Now on to the more exotic dishes…the tripe was interesting.  My dad always liked tripe but I never had any interest in trying it especially when I found out it was the intestine of an animal!  But I was here to try everything so I put a little on my plate and gave it a whirl.  It was actually more flavorful than I had expected but after one bite I was ready to go on to the next exotic item…the chicken feet!  Yikes!  They are actual chicken feet and this is quite a common dish in China we were told.  Restaurant owner Michelle Mei mentioned that Americans are typically afraid to try this dish and generally asked us why we thought that was the case.  I said I think we just can’t get over the fact that these are feet!  Funny…we don’t seem to have a problem with the chicken leg, do we?

While I was preparing to try the chicken feet, my friend Cassandra was doing a Facebook live post of herself about to try the chicken feet herself.  I was sitting right next to her so in her live post you can see my reaction to all this.  It definitely made the experience fun and memorable!  After she bit into her chicken foot, I did the same and surprise, surprise…it tasted like chicken!  Ha!

After all this food, I couldn’t believe there would be more but then out came dessert in the form of coconut red bean jelly pudding and jasmine tea.  Very light sweetness to this pudding and while you would think the coconut and red bean flavor would be overwhelming, those flavors were faint and pleasant.

Owner Mei wants people in Birmingham to know more about dim sum, what she calls “real” Chinese food versus American Chinese food.  Dishes like sesame chicken and chop suey would fall into the American category but you won’t find these in China!  Black Pearl specializes in Sichuan style dim sum which tends to be spicy.  The restaurant’s Chef, Huanqun He, has been cooking up these delicious dishes for over 30 years and she was working at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas prior to moving to Birmingham.  Now the dim sum cart is rolled out at the Black Pearl on weekends to the delight of those who love these authentic Chinese foods.  During the week, diners can order individual baskets off of the vast menu.  It amazes me that we tried so many types of dim sum that evening and yet there are so many more left to go!  I’m thinking a weekend visit back to the Black Pearl is in order to check off the rest of the menu!

A Little Miami Fusion in the Heart of Birmingham!

Luis Delgado, owner and operator of Miami Fusion Café in Downtown Birmingham, stands by the door that he refurbished for his new restaurant.

I lived in Puerto Rico from the ages 7-12, and while the island itself held many great memories growing up, the food always bring back so many vivid ones.  I remember going to our church fair and looking forward to getting bacalaitos – cod-fish fritters.  I recently had one in Birmingham and it took me directly back to the church fair when I was 9 years old.  Amazing how food can do that to you.

When I met Luis Delgado, he had his business – Miami Café – operating out of gas station in Alabaster.  I remember going to visit him with my friend, Luis Fernandez to talk to him about participating in Fiesta – Alabama’s largest Hispanic cultural event, as a food vendor.  We enjoyed an amazing lunch that day and I was completely sold on his food from that moment on.

The Miami Fusion Café sign went up in March. A nice addition to the city of Birmingham backdrop!

Fast forward to this past week…Luis has been hard at work since last October, converting the old Cameo Café in downtown Birmingham into his new Miami Fusion Café location!  I’ve been following his short Facebook videos on the progress and challenges of opening a restaurant.  He’s always so honest, and puts it all out there for you to see.  I love that about him.  Many people have been anxiously awaiting the grand opening and that will finally happen on Monday, May 22nd to the delight of many – me included!  I work within walking distance of Luis’ new location and I cannot wait to try everything on his menu!

I was fortunate to be able to attend the soft opening this past Friday.  When I arrived a little after 11 a.m., there were just a few people sitting in the restaurant enjoying their food.  I was taking photos as I entered the Café so that naturally drew a little attention.  I went to the counter and Roxie was ready to take my order and make recommendations.  I thought about going for the Roasted Port  as she suggested, but I remembered seeing a photo of a sushi roll on Facebook and I thought…now THAT’S something you don’t typically see in a Caribbean style restaurant!  So I ordered the Cuban CariMaki Roll and Roxie seemed pleased with my choice!

The yellow and red colors really pop with the art deco design reminiscent of Miami night life!

While I waited for my food, I walked around the restaurant taking photos and spent some time speaking with Luis’ mother – Maria Teresa.  She took me around and showed me some of the artwork displayed in the restaurant and told me there is more to come.  We talked about the art deco style design of the restaurant and also the colors selected.  I love the gold tones of the walls and the red accents in the booth seats.  It gives the store front a tropical vibe.  Later, when Luis was out from the kitchen, he told me and a few other patrons about how he built the bars and added the art deco embellishments by hand.  He also created the new door for the store, after which he commented…”that’s why this took so long!  I did all of this by hand!”  I told him the love and care he put into this place is so evident!  Luis also talked about how he wants to make the bar I was sitting at an active one where maybe one month he is making Cuban sandwiches so people can see how it’s done and then another month serving up ice cream with tropical flavors like tamarindo and mango.  He completely had me at tamarindo…another great memory of Puerto Rico for me!

Cuban CariMaki Roll – first time I’ve had the pleasure of trying this and it was incredible! The sweet plantain on the top was an unexpected surprise flavor!

My food arrived and all I can say is – OMG!!!!  The Cuban CariMaki roll is made with Cuban palomilla steak, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado and grilled onions.   It is topped with sweet plantains which is that surprise flavor you are not expecting when you pop one of these into your mouth!  As I was eating, people were coming into the store and trying to decide what to order and many saw my plate and walked over to have a look.  I know the roasted pork plate was popular on Friday but I do believe my oohing and aahing sold quite a few CariMaki rolls too!

In addition to the main courses, like Masitas, Mofongo and Cuban sandwiches, there are a number of sides you have to try as well.  Several people ordered the tostones, which are green plantains that have been flattened and double fried until they are golden brown with a side of mojo sauce.  Fried Yuca sticks were another favorite – also described as a Caribbean style French fry.  And don’t forget the empanadas – fried pies with your choice of chicken or beef!  I could make a meal out of empanadas alone!

Finally…if you have a bit of a sweet tooth there are some great options to try.  First, the Jesus Cake – also known as Tres Leches (Three Milks) cake and Guava pastry.  You can’t go wrong with either…which is why I got both!  I watched someone say they were just going to take a few bites of the Jesus cake and before you knew it that cake was gone!  If you like creamy desserts, this is the one for you!  The guava pastry is one of those foods that takes me back to Puerto Rico.  Very flaky crust with just a hint of sweetness.  Great with Cuban coffee!

I always love the tidbits of information you get at events like this too.  Luis talked about searching for a man named Fernando who makes the Cuban bread for him.  Fernando was doing other work but when he came to the restaurant it was clear he missed making bread and came on board.  Bread is a huge factor in making Cuban sandwiches!  My next meal at Miami Fusion Café will be a Cuban sandwich…I already know it!  Luis also has big plans for the upstairs of the restaurant with catering and events.  His mind is always twirling with ideas!

After taking a few more photos of the foods leaving the kitchen and talking to a few more patrons, it was time for me to go.  I talked again to Roxie,  who brought me a large bag so I could take my Jesus Cake and guava dessert home.  She said she looked forward to seeing me for lunch on Monday with my husband.  I told her I couldn’t wait to come back often!  We joked how I had camped out at the bar area while I was there.  I told her I didn’t want to leave and that I needed a plaque with my name claiming that spot as my own!   She replied, “well, you’re family when you come in…we want you to stay!”

This was the perfect way for me to leave Miami Fusion Café on Friday.  I felt like family the minute I walked into the restaurant.  I know you will too, so please do yourself a favor and go by if you are in Birmingham.  Luis and his staff are anxious to serve you!

P.S.  On Saturday morning, Luis and his wife, Samantha, added to their lovely family with the birth of a daughter!  Quite a big week for the Delgado family…the restaurant opening and now a new baby!  Congratulations to Luis and Samantha and best wishes for great success with Miami Fusion Café!

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HICA’s Annual Tamale Sale is BACK!

HICA Tamales go on sale Thanksgiving Day!

HICA Tamales go on sale Thanksgiving Day!

I know it’s Thanksgiving Day and you are all probably up to your eyeballs in turkey and dressing…BUT…give some thought to Mexican food too because today is the beginning of the 13th Annual HICA Tamale Sale!!!!!

If you live in the Birmingham area and love tamales, you don’t want to miss out on this fundraiser benefiting the programs of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama  – HICA.  The sale runs through December 11th and orders are taken online with pick up date on December 16th at the HICA offices.  If you work with a Tamale Captain, you may be able to get them delivered to you.  All this information is on the HICA website so be sure to check it out today and place your order.  Flavors include chicken with green sauce, pork with red sauce and MY favorite, cheese and pepper tamales.

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Tamales have become a tradition for many non-Hispanic people in Birmingham over the years of our sale.  It’s definitely a tradition with Mexican families, mine included!  Friends and family get together to have a tamalada (where you make the tamales) and then after they are all made – dozens and dozens – you eat them together!  Tamales are fairly labor intensive to make so they aren’t necessarily made on a regular basis.  Christmas is one of those special times when they are made and we’ve shared this information with the people who return every year to buy tamales from HICA.  They come back and share their stories of eating Christmas tamales with their own families along with salsa and other fixings!  It’s so fun to hear the stories every year during pick up day.  We may try to record a few this year!

Me and Isabel Rubio after filming our tamale sale video this year in he kitchen.

Me and Isabel Rubio after filming our tamale sale video this year in he kitchen.

This year, HICA’s Executive Director, Isabel Rubio and I made an English video that will run beginning Thanksgiving day.  HICA Staff members, Monica Black and Cindy Garcia were on hand to make a Spanish video to run as well.  We gathered in Isabel’s kitchen to made the videos a few weeks ago with Latino News.  And the best part?  We got to eat the tamales afterward!  YUM!!!

Cindy Garcia, Isabel Rubio, me and Monica Black after the tamale videos wrapped up - thanks to Latino News for filming!

Cindy Garcia, Isabel Rubio, me and Monica Black after the tamale videos wrapped up – thanks to Latino News for filming!

Being a part of the HICA Tamale Sale is one of my favorite things to do each year as a board member!  If you’ve never tried our tamales before, I encourage you to give them a try this year.  They are simply the best and hopefully this will be the beginning of a new holiday tradition for you and your family!

Fiesta 2016 – Some of my Favorite Photos

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Drummer for Los Canarios on the Fiesta Coca Cola Main Stage

We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day!  The sky was blue and the temperature reached the low 80s and the sun made itself known throughout the day.  After the constant drizzle of the previous year, this was so welcomed to the Fiesta board, volunteers and especially the patrons!

Approximately 14,000 people made their way to Linn Park in downtown Birmingham for the 14th annual Fiesta event on Saturday, September 24.  My favorite things to do every single year is to walk the park, visiting all the booths and meeting and greeting all the nonprofits, businesses and vendors who come to be a part of this incredible event.  I take their photos, welcome the new folks and catch up with old friends along the way.

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A little girl wearing a traditional Mexican dress gets her nails painted in the Family Village.

One of the highlights of this years event was the competition between countries in the Cultural Village – the heart of Fiesta.  A group of judges went through – anonymously – and voted on the best country booth based on presentation and creativity.   This year the Mexico won the competition and took home $500!  Next year, the stakes will be even higher as the best country booth will walk away with $1,000!

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A collage of photos from past Fiestas adorned the Mexico booth in the Cultural Village. The Mexico booth won the first ever competition of Cultural Village country booths!

By the way…next year will be Fiesta’s 15th year anniversary – our quinceanera…and we have big things planned for this milestone!  Mark your calendars for Saturday, September 30, 2017, for Fiesta 2017 and stay tuned for an event packed year leading up to this great event!

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Mark your calendar for Fiesta 2017!!!!!

Meanwhile…please enjoy some of my favorite photos from this year’s Fiesta!

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