Jon Lovallo of Port Chester jokes around with the other guys participating in the taco-eating contest at Salsa Picante on Monday, Nov. 9.Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
Jon Lovallo of Port Chester jokes around with the other guys participating in the taco-eating contest at Salsa Picante on Monday, Nov. 9.
Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
Twenty-four-that is how many tacos two men managed to devour during a contest at Salsa Picante.

On Monday evening, Nov. 9, the tiny Port Chester restaurant was packed with hardy men ready to see who could consume the most tacos in half an hour and avid onlookers thirsty for both the competition and the margaritas passed around the room.

Many of the men knew each other, either from growing up together in Port Chester or from friends of friends. They joked and laughed even as they stuffed tacos in their mouths. They may have been competing to eat the most, but they were more than willing to take a moment to pour a glass of water for a neighbor or pass the lime slices to the next table. A couple of guys even traded tacos so they would have different fillings to eat.

In the end, it was two guys seated next to each other who earned the bragging rights: Jon Lovallo of Port Chester and Jake Lopez of Pearl River.

When David Dolores, the owner of Salsa Picante on Adee Street, called out the 30-minute mark, that was it; no more eating. At least, no more eating for the contest. Lovallo still had a couple of tacos left on his plate and he didn't want them to go to waste. In fact, he said, he could have eaten more if not for the time limit. On regular Monday and Tuesday evenings when Salsa Picante has their all-you-can-eat taco bonanzas, the participants are not stopped after half an hour. Lovallo's current record is actually 29 tacos, which remains the most eaten in one sitting at Salsa Picante to date.

"I only stopped at 29 'cause that was the end of the plate," Lovallo said, adding he probably could have eaten a few more. Also, if he hears about someone beating his record, the Port Chester resident is more than willing to come in and top the new number.

As the winners, Lovallo and Lopez each took home a bottle of Roca Patrón Silver, courtesy of Patrón Tequila which also donated liquor for the margaritas for the contestants and the people who showed up to cheer them on during the contest.

Rye Town residents

While many of the taco eaters hailed from Port Chester-including the mayor, Dennis Pilla-there were some others from around Westchester. Rob Struzzi, who ate 23 tacos, just one shy of a three-way tie, is from Harrison. Dean Proserpio, a friend of both winners, grew up in Rye Brook.

After 15 years in Boston, Mass., he decided to come back to his hometown.

"I moved back to this area eager to bring back a level of weirdness it f***ing needs," Proserpio said. "And you can quote me on that."

His comment brought a round of laughter from the guys sitting around him. A fan of the more diverse Port Chester, Proserpio fit right in with the crowd of hungry taco eaters.

Almost all of the contest participants are regulars at the Port Chester eatery and everyone had been there at least once for the Monday and Tuesday taco nights. In order to qualify for the contest on Nov. 9, they had to have proven they could eat at least 10 tacos.

"Dean brought me over to eat at Taco Tuesday one time and the owner saw I ate 18 tacos," Lopez said. Dolores invited Lopez to participate in the contest, a wise decision as he ended up tying for first place. "I'm definitely coming back," the Pearl River resident added. "I'll be here for the next one."

Funds for Tamarack Tower

Dolores definitely would like to hold another contest and has ideas about how to involve children and teenagers, too. One thing he plans to fix for next time: more workers in the kitchen.

By the time the contest ended, the chefs looked very thankful to be able to slow down. During the frantic half hour, the diners ate faster than the kitchen could keep up. As this was the first contest he held, the owner knew there would be little glitches, but thought it still went very well for a first attempt.

When Dolores originally came up with the idea of the taco contest, he knew he wanted to include a fundraising aspect and initially thought to donate to a local PTA. After attending the Tamarack Tower Foundation's annual raffle drawing at the Copacabana Steakhouse last month, Dolores decided to shift his plan away from only donating to a single school's PTA.

"I listened to the story of them, of what they do," he said. "I thought Tamarack gives to everybody depending on who needs it the most."

By donating to Tamarack Tower Foundation, the entire district benefits as the organization's goal is to provide gifts, grants and scholarships to schools and students in the Port Chester School District.

Besides contributing all of the tasty tacos, Salsa Picante also donated two $50 gift certificates to the restaurant which they raffled off. At $5 a ticket, Dolores raised $300 for Tamarack Tower. Just by chance, the two winners of the raffle were Bishop Nowotnik and Denise Quinn, president and vice president, respectively, of the foundation. Nowotnik said they will likely re-raffle off the gift certificates, possibly at the upcoming Turkey Trot fundraiser on Thanksgiving.

As part of the contest, anyone who did not eat 12 tacos would have to donate to Tamarack Tower. Luckily-or unluckily, depending on how you view it-no one had to chip in $25 as every participant ate at least 12 tacos.

"They pulled off an impossible thing," Nowotnik said. "I was concerned about the size (of the restaurant), but they made it work. It was exciting and it was fun."